Following the insight of Hannah Arendt, a leading political theorist of mid-20th century totalitarianism, a dark cloud of political and ethical ignorance has descended upon the United States.Thoughtlessness, a primary condition of authoritarian rule, 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, while children are pushed to be adults, stripped of their innocence and subject to a range of disciplinary pressures that saddle them with debt and cripple their ability to be imaginative.
Under such circumstances, agency devolves into a mind-numbing anti-intellectualism evident in the banalities produced by Fox News infotainment and celebrity culture, and in the blinding rage produced by populist politicians who support creationism, argue against climate change and rail against immigration, the rights of women, public service workers, gay people and countless others. There is more at work here than a lethal form of intellectual, political and emotional infantilism. There is also a catastrophe of indifference and inattentiveness that breeds flirtations with irrationality, fuels the spectacle of violence, creates an embodied incapacity and promotes the withering of public life.
The citizen is now urged to become a consumer, politicians are now mouthpieces for money and power and the burgeoning army of anti-public intellectuals in the mainstream media present themselves as unapologetic enemies of compassion, the commons and democracy itself. Education is no longer viewed as a public good but as a private right, and critical thinking is no longer valued as a fundamental necessity for creating engaged and socially responsible citizens. Neoliberalism’s contempt for the social is now matched by an utter disdain for the common good. Public spheres that once encouraged progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, democratic values, critical dialogue and exchange have been replaced by corporate entities whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins and producing a vast commercial culture “that tends to function so as to erase everything that matters.”
One outcome of this tangle of forces is that we live at a time in which institutions that were designed to limit human suffering and indignity and protect the public from the boom-and-bust cycles of capitalist markets have been either been weakened or abolished. Free market policies, values and practices, with their now unrestrained emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the denigration of social protections and the deregulation of economic activity, influence practically every commanding political and economic institution in North America. Finance capitalism now drives politics, governance and policy in unprecedented ways and is more than willing to sacrifice the future of young people for short-term political and economic gains.
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. Far too many youth 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. As Jennifer Silva has pointed out, this generation of especially “young working-class men and women … are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks…. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.”
Youth today are not only plagued by the fragility and uncertainty of the present; they are also “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.” Too many young people and other vulnerable groups now inhabit what might be called a geography of terminal exclusion, a space of disposability that extends its reach to a growing number of individuals and groups.
The human face of those who inhabit this geography of exclusion has been captured in a story told by Chip Ward, a former librarian in Salt Lake City, who writes poignantly about a homeless woman he calls Ophelia, who retreats to the library because like many homeless people she has nowhere else to go to use the bathroom, secure temporary relief from bad weather or simply be able to rest. Excluded from the American dream and treated as both expendable and a threat, Ophelia, in spite of her obvious mental illness, defines her own existence in terms that offer a chilling metaphor for her own plight and those of many others. Ward describes Ophelia’s presence and actions in the following way:
Ophelia sits by the fireplace and mumbles softly, smiling and gesturing at no one in particular. She gazes out the large window through the two pairs of glasses she wears, one windshield-sized pair over a smaller set perched precariously on her small nose. Perhaps four lenses help her see the invisible other she is addressing. When her “nobody there” conversation disturbs the reader seated beside her, Ophelia turns, chuckles at the woman’s discomfort, and explains, “Don’t mind me, I’m dead. It’s okay. I’ve been dead for some time now.” She pauses, then adds reassuringly, “It’s not so bad. You get used to it.” Not at all reassured, the woman gathers her belongings and moves quickly away. Ophelia shrugs. Verbal communication is tricky. She prefers telepathy, but that’s hard to do since the rest of us, she informs me, “don’t know the rules.” (my emphasis)
Ophelia represents just one of the 3.5 million people who are homeless at some point in the year in the United States, many of whom use public libraries and any other accessible public spaces to find shelter. Many are women and children; they are often sick, disoriented and suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues, and many are barely able to cope with the stress, insecurity and dangers they face every day. And while Ophelia’s comments may be dismissed as the ramblings of a mentally ill woman, they speak to something much deeper about the current state of US society and its desertion of entire populations who are now considered the human waste of a neoliberal economic order.
People who were once viewed as facing dire problems and in need of social protection are now seen as a problem threatening society. This becomes clear when the war on poverty is transformed into a war against the poor, when the plight of the homeless is defined less as a political and economic issue in need of social reform than as a matter of law and order or when government budgets for prison construction eclipse funds for higher education.
The transformation of the social state into the corporate-controlled punishing state is made startlingly clear when young people, to rephrase W.E.B. Du Bois, becomeproblem people rather than people who face problems. Young people, especially low-income and poor people of color, are now viewed as trouble rather than being seen as facing troubles. As such, they are increasingly subject to the dictates of the criminal legal system rather than subject to assistance from social programs that could address their most basic needs.
Beyond exposing the moral depravity of a society that fails to provide for its youth, the symbolic and real violence waged against many young people reflects nothing less than a collective death wish – especially visible when youth protest their conditions. As Alain Badiou argues, we live in an era in which there is near zero tolerance for democratic resistance and “infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions.” How else to explain the FBI’s willingness to label as a “terrorist threat” youthful activists speaking against corporate and government misdeeds, while at the same time the Bureau refuses to press criminal charges against the banking giant HSBC for laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels and terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda? Equally disturbing are the revelations that the Department of Homeland Security, which was “created in large part to combat terrorism,” has put under surveillance members of the Black Lives Matter movement who have been organizing against the racist conditions producing police violence against Black people in the United States.
If youth were once the repository of society’s dreams, that is no longer true. Increasingly, young people are viewed as a public disorder, a dream now turned into a nightmare. Many youth are forced to negotiate a post-9/11 social order that positions them as a prime target of its “governing through crime” complex. Consider the many “get tough” policies that now render young people criminals, while depriving them of basic health care, education and social services. Punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility as the most important modalities for mediating the relationship of youth to the larger society, all too evident by the upsurge of zero-tolerance laws in schools along with the expanding reach of the punishing state in the United States. When the criminalization of social problems becomes a mode of governance and war its default strategy, youth are reduced to soldiers or targets – not social investments. As anthropologist Alain Bertho points out, “Youth is no longer considered the world’s future, but as a threat to its present.”
Increasingly, the only political discourses available to many young people derive from privatized regimes of self-discipline and “emotional self-management.” Youth are now removed from any meaningful register of democracy. Their absence is symptomatic of a society that has turned against itself, punishing its children at the risk of bringing down the entire body politic. What I call the war on youth emerged in its contemporary forms 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 decade, democracy and the political process were hijacked by corporations and the call for austerity policies became a 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 drain on short-term investments and a threat to untrammeled self-interest and quick profits.
The war on youth is spreading out across the United States. How else might we explain the United States’ turning of schools into training centers, modeling many after prisons, or promoting the rise of pedagogies of repression such as teaching to the test and high-stakes testing, all in the name of educational reform? What is the role of education in a democracy when a society burdens an entire generation with high tuition costs and student loans? I think David Graeber is right in arguing, “Student loans are destroying the imagination of youth. If there’s a way of a society committing mass suicide, what better way than to take all the youngest, most energetic, creative, joyous people in your society and saddle them with, like $50,000 of debt so they have to be slaves? There goes your music. There goes your culture…. We’re a society that has lost any ability to incorporate the interesting, creative and eccentric people.” What he does not say is that many young people are also being depoliticized because they are struggling just to survive, not only materially but also existentially.
Under such circumstances, all bets are off regarding the future of democracy. What is also being lost in the current historical conjuncture is the very idea of interpersonal responsibility, a commitment to the collective good, a democratic notion of the commons, the idea of connecting learning to social improvement and the promise of a robust democracy dedicated to a full measure of personal, political and economic rights. 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 growth of civic illiteracy, gated minds in gated communities, simplistic intolerance, atrophied social skills, a culture of cruelty and a downward spiral into the dark recesses of an oligarchic social order. Children pay most acutely for this. Consider that the United States is the only country in the world that has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for “a commitment to promote and respect the human rights of children, including the right to life, to health, to education and to play, as well as the right to family life, to be protected from violence and from any form of discrimination.”
Politics is now driven by a much-promoted hypercompetitive ideology with a message that surviving in society demands reducing social relations to forms of social combat. Too many young people today learn quickly that their fate is solely a matter of individual responsibility, irrespective of wider structural forces. As such, politics has become an extension of war, just as “systemic economic insecurity and anxiety” and state-sponsored violence increasingly find legitimation in the discourses of austerity, privatization and demonization, which promote anxiety, moral panics and fear, and undermine any sense of communal responsibility for the well-being of others. The curse of privatization in a consumer-driven society is intensified by the market-driven assumption that for young people the only obligation of citizenship is to consume. Yet, there is more at work here than the mechanisms of depoliticization; there is also a flight from social responsibility, if not politics itself. Also lost is the importance of those social bonds, modes of collective reasoning, public spheres and cultural apparatuses crucial to the formation of a sustainable democratic society.
As one eminent sociologist points out, “Visions have nowadays fallen into disrepute and we tend to be proud of what we should be ashamed of.” For instance, politicians, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, not only refuse to apologize for the immense misery, displacement and suffering they have imposed on the Iraqi people – principally Iraqi children – but also they seem to gloat in defending such policies. Doublespeak takes on a new register as President Obama employs the discourse of national security to sanction a surveillance state, a targeted assassination list and the ongoing killing of young children and their families by drones. This expanding landscape of lies has not only produced an illegal and global war on terror and justified state torture, even against children; it has also provided a justification for the United States’ slide into barbarism after the tragic events of 9/11. Yet, such acts of state violence appear to be of little concern to the shameless apostles of permanent war.
The War Against Youth
In what follows, I want to address the intensifying assault on young people through the related concepts of “soft war” and “hard war.” The idea of the soft war considers the changing conditions of youth within the relentless expansion of a global market society. Partnered with a massive advertising machinery, the soft war targets all children and youth, devaluing them by treating them as yet another “market” to be commodified and exploited, and conscripting them into the system through relentless attempts to create a new generation of hyperconsumers.
This low-intensity war is waged by a variety of corporate institutions through the educational force of a culture that commercializes every aspect of kids’ lives, and now uses the internet and various social networks along with the new media technologies such as smart phones to immerse young people in the world of mass consumption in ways that are more direct and expansive than anything we have seen in the past. Commercially carpet-bombed by an advertising industry that in the United States spent $189 billion in 2012, the typical child is exposed to about 40,000 ads a year and by the time they reach the fourth grade, children have memorized 300 to 400 brands.
An entire generation is being drawn into a world of consumerism in which commodities and brand loyalty become both the most important markers ofidentity and the primary frameworks for mediating one’s relationship to the world. Increasingly, many young people, recast as commodities, can only recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, youth are simultaneously “promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote” – defined as both brands and merchandise, on the one hand, and marketing agents on the other.
What are the consequences of the soft war? Public spaces have been transformed into neoliberal disimagination zones, which make it more difficult for young people to find public spheres where they can locate themselves and translate metaphors of hope into meaningful action. The dreamscapes that make up a society built on the promises of mass consumption translate deftly into ad copy, insistently promoting and normalizing a neoliberal order in which economic relations now provide the master script for how young people define themselves, and their relations with others and the larger world.
The data-mining marketers make young people think they count when in fact “all they want to do is count them.” The dominant culture’s overbearing ecology of consumption now works to selectively eliminate and reorder the possible modes of political, social and ethical vocabularies made available to youth. Young peoples’ most private experiences are now colonized by a consumerist ethic that deforms their sense of agency, desires, values and hopes. Trapped within a spectacle of marketing, their capacity to be critically engaged and socially responsible citizens is significantly compromised.
The Hard War
The hard war is a more serious and dangerous development for young people, especially those who are marginalized by virtue of their ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and class. The hard war refers to the harshest elements of a growing youth crime-control complex that operates through a logic of punishment, surveillance and control. The young people targeted by its punitive measures are often poor youth of color who are considered failed consumers and who can only afford to live on the margins of a commercial culture that excludes anybody without money, resources and leisure time. They are youth considered uneducable and unemployable, and therefore troublesome, if not a threat to the existing order.
The imprint of the youth crime-control complex can be traced back to the now normative practice of organizing life in schools through disciplinary practices that subject students to constant surveillance through high-tech security devices while imposing on them harsh and often thoughtless zero-tolerance policies that closely resemble measures used by the criminal legal system. In this instance, poor youth and youth of color become objects of a new mode of governance based on the crudest forms of disciplinary control. Punished if they don’t show up at school and punished even if they do attend school, many of these students are funneled into what has been ominously called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” If middle- and upper-class kids are subject to the seductions of market-driven public relations, working-class youth are caught in the crosshairs between the arousal of commercial desire and the harsh impositions of securitization, surveillance and policing.
How else do we explain the fact that in the United States today 500,000 young people are incarcerated and 2.5 million are arrested annually, and that by the age of 23, “almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime”? What kind of society allows 1.6 million children to be homeless at any given time in a year? Or allows massive inequalities in wealth and income to produce a politically and morally dysfunctional society in which “45 percent of U.S. residents live in households that struggle to make ends meet”? Current statistics paint a bleak picture for young people in the richest country in the world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the number of unemployed youth was 2.8 million in July 2015”; 12.5 million are without food; and in what amounts to a national disgrace, one out of every five US children lives in poverty. Nearly half of all US children and 90 percent of Black youngsters will rely on food stamps at some point during childhood.
What are we to make of a society in which there were more young people killed on the streets of Chicago since 2001 then US soldiers killed in Afghanistan? To be more exact, 5,000 were people killed by gunfire in Chicago, many of them children, while 2,000 troops were killed between 2001 and 2012. What kind of society is indifferent to the fact that this country “sees an average of 92 gun deaths per day – [with] more preschoolers … shot dead each year than police officers are killed in the line of duty”? Near weekly mass shootings aside, what has flown under the radar is that in the last four years more than 500 children under the age of 12 were killed by guns.
As the war on terror comes home, public spaces have been transformed into war zones as local police forces have taken on the role of an occupying army, especially in poor neighborhoods of color, accentuated by the fact that the police now have access to armored troop carriers, night-vision-equipped rifles, Humvees, M-16 automatic rifles, grenade launchers and other weapons designed for military tactics. Acting as a paramilitary force, the police have become a new symbol of domestic terrorism, shaking down youth of color and Black communities in general by criminalizing a multitude of behaviors.
This was especially true in the stop-and-frisk policies so widespread under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City. In Ferguson, Missouri, the entire population was subject to a form of legal lawlessness in what can only be described as a practice of racist extortion. Rather than defined as a population to be protected, the largely Black citizens of Ferguson were arrested and fined for being unable to pay their debts, violating trivial rules such as letting their grass grow too high or jaywalking, all of which made them a prime target for the criminal legal system. As a result, the police viewed the Black residents of Ferguson “as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.”
The rise of the punishing state and the war on terror has emboldened police forces across the nation and in doing so feeds their use of racist violence against young people of color, resulting in what has been called an “epidemic of police brutality.” Sadly, even children are not immune to such violence, as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on November 22, 2014, by a white police officer has made clear. Even more tragic is the fact that the City of Cleveland tried to blame the boy for his own death. Rice was holding a BB gun when he was shot to death by a police officer judged unfit for duty just two years prior. The killing of Black youth and adults has taken on the image of a cruel sport suggestive of a police force spiraling downward into a form of authoritarianism that merges lawlessness with a dangerous form of militarism.
Against the idealistic rhetoric of a government that claims to venerate young people lies the reality of a society that increasingly views youth through the optic of law and order, a society that appears all too willing to treat youth as criminals and when necessary “disappear” them into the farthest reaches of the carceral state. What are we to make of a society that allows New York City Police Department officers to come into a school and arrest, handcuff and haul off a 12-year-old student for doodling on her desk? Or, for that matter, school systems that allow a 6-year-old in Georgia and a 5-year-old kindergarten pupil in Florida to be handcuffed and taken to police stations for having tantrums in their classrooms? Where is the public outrage when two police officers called to a day care center in central Indiana to handle an unruly 10-year-old decide to taser the child? Or when a school administration allows a police officer in Arkansas to use a stun gun to discipline an allegedly out of control 10-year-old girl?
One public response to this incident came from Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International Inc., who insisted that a “Stun gun can be safely used on children.”Sadly, this is but a small sampling of the ways in which children are being punished instead of educated in US schools, especially inner-city schools. All of these examples point to the growing social disregard for young people and the number of institutions willing to employ crime-and-punishment measures that together constitute not only a crisis of education, but the emergence of a new mode of politics that Jonathan Simon has called “governing through crime.”
Of course, we have seen this ruthless crime optic in previous historical periods, but at least crime was followed by attempts at reforms and rehabilitation, not revenge, as characterizes the contemporary criminal legal system. For one historical example of this broader understanding of crime and punishment, I want to turn to Claude Brown, the late African-American novelist, who understood something about this war on youth in its mid-century articulation. Though his novel, Manchild in the Promised Land, takes place in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s, there is something to be learned from his autobiographical novel. Take for example the following passage:
If Reno was in a bad mood – if he didn’t have any money and he wasn’t high – he’d say, “Man, Sonny, they ain’t got no kids in Harlem. I ain’t never seen any. I’ve seen some real small people actin’ like kids, but they don’t have any kids in Harlem, because nobody has time for a childhood. Man, do you ever remember bein’ a kid? Not me. Shit, kids are happy, kids laugh, kids are secure. They ain’t scared a nothin’. You ever been a kid, Sonny? Damn, you lucky. I ain’t never been a kid, man. I don’t ever remember bein’ happy and not scared. I don’t know what happened, man, but I think I missed out on that childhood thing, because I don’t ever recall bein’ a kid.
In Manchild in the Promised Land, Brown wrote about the doomed lives of his friends, families and neighborhood acquaintances. The book is mostly remembered as a brilliant, but devastating portrait of Harlem under siege – a community ravaged and broken by heroin, poverty, unemployment, crime and police brutality. But what Brown really brought into focus was that the raw violence and dead-end existence that plagued so many young people in Harlem, stole not only their future but their childhood as well. In the midst of the social collapse and psychological trauma wrought by the systemic fusion of racism and class exploitation, children in Harlem were held hostage to forces that robbed them of the innocence that comes with childhood and forced them to take on the risks and burdens of daily survival that older generations were unable to shield them from.
At the heart of Brown’s narrative, written in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, is a “manchild,” a metaphor that indicts a society that is waging a war on those children who are Black and poor and have been forced to grow up too quickly. The hybridized concept of “manchild” marked a liminal space in which innocence was lost and childhood stolen, and any meaningful sense of adult agency and autonomy was aggressively compromised. Harlem was a well-contained, internal colony and its street life provided the conditions and the very necessity for insurrection. But the many forms of rebellion young people expressed – from the public and progressive to the interiorized and self-destructive – came at a cost, which Brown reveals near the end of the book: “It seemed as though most of the cats that we’d come up with just hadn’t made it. Almost everybody was dead or in jail.”
Childhood stolen was not to be salvaged by self-help – that shortsighted and mendacious appeal that would define the reactionary reform efforts of the 1980s and 1990s, from Reagan’s hatred of government to Clinton’s attack on welfare reform and his “instrumental role in creating one of the world’s largest prison systems.” At that time, it was a clarion call for condemning a social order that denied children a viable and life-enhancing present and future. While Brown approached everyday life in Harlem more as a poet than as a political revolutionary, politics was embedded in every sentence of the book – not a politics marked by demagoguery, hatred and orthodoxy, but one that made visible the damage done by a social system characterized by massive inequalities and a rigid racial divide. Manchild created the image of a society without children in order to raise questions about the future of a country that had turned its back on its most vulnerable population.
Like the great critical theorist, C. Wright Mills, Brown’s lasting contribution was to reconfigure the boundaries between public issues and private suffering. For Brown, racism was about power and oppression – not ignorance, not fear – and could not be separated from broader social, economic and political considerations. Rather than denying systemic causes of injustice (as did the discourses of individual pathology and self-help), Brown insisted that social forces had to be factored into any understanding of both group suffering and individual despair. Brown explored the suffering of the young in Harlem, but he did so by utterly refusing to privatize it, or to dramatize and spectacularize private life over public dysfunction, or to separate individual hopes, desires and agency from the realm of politics and public life.
Fifty years later, Brown’s metaphor of the “manchild” is more relevant today than when he wrote the book, and “the Promised Land” more prescient than ever as his revelation about the sorry plight of poor children of color takes on a more expansive meaning in light of the current economic meltdown and the dashed hopes of an entire generation now viewed as a generation without hope for a decent future. Youth today are forced to inhabit a rough world where childhood is nonexistent, and they are crushed under the heavy material and existential burdens they are forced to bear.
Efforts to Break Free
The plight of poor youth of color also extends beyond the severity of material deprivations and violence they experience daily. Many young people have been forced to view the world and redefine the nature of their own youth within the borders of hopelessness, insecurity and despair. There is little basis on which to imagine a better future lying just beyond the highly restrictive spaces of commodification and containment. Neoliberal austerity in social spending means an entire generation of youth will not have access to the decent jobs, material comforts, educational opportunities or security that was available to previous generations. These are a new generation of youth who have to think, act and talk like adults. Many must worry about their family members’ inability to find work or about the incarceration of a parent.
In the United States, young people are further burdened by registers of extreme poverty that pose the dire challenge of food security and access to even the most basic health care in communities ravaged by those illnesses and special needs that accrue in impoverished conditions. These young people inhabit a new and more unsettling scene of suffering, a dead zone of the imagination, which constitutes a site of terminal exclusion – one that reveals not only the vast and destabilizing inequalities in neoliberal economic landscapes, but also portends a future that has no purchase on the hope that characterizes a vibrant democracy.
Educators, individuals, artists, intellectuals and various social movements need to make visible both the workings of market fundamentalism “in all of its forms of exploitation whether personal, political, or economic [and they] … need to reconstruct a platform” and a set of strategies to oppose it. Clearly, any political formation that matters must challenge the savage social costs that casino capitalism has enacted and work to undue the forms of social, political and economic violence that young people are daily experiencing. This will demand more than one-day demonstrations. Urgently needed are new public spheres in which there is a resurgence of public memory, civic literacy and civic courage – that is, a willingness to both “effectively analyze the structures and mechanisms of capitalist power [in order] to formulate a sophisticated political response” and the willingness to build longstanding oppositional movements. Traces of such movements are beginning to emerge in the United States among fast-food workers and among students protesting crushing debt and police brutality. These traces are also apparent in the ongoing development of social movements in countries such as Spain and Greece that are rejecting the harsh neoliberal austerity policies imposed by the bankers and global financial elite.
In North America, we are seeing important, though inconclusive, attempts on the part of young people to break the hold of unaccountable governmental and financial power. This was evident in the Occupy movement, the Quebec student movement, the Idle No More movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. The New York Times recently reported that people all over the world are losing faith in democracy. What it missed is that young people are not dissatisfied with democracy but with its absence. In the United States, there is a new political momentum to reclaim a real democracy, one that provides all Americans with a livable minimum wage or guaranteed income; removes money from politics; reclaims the commons by reversing the pernicious nature of privatization; reins in the ravaging effects of unfettered casino capitalism; abolishes the bogus concept of corporate personhood; dismantles the permanent warfare state; reverses global warming; redistributes wealth in the interest of a vibrant democracy; nationalizes health care; breaks up the banks; eliminates the punishing-mass incarceration state; and eradicates the surveillance state, among other reforms.
This is a language that says that no society is ever just enough and calls for new collective struggles in the hope of creating a future that refuses to be defined by the dystopian forces now shaping US society. These reforms are both profound and instructive for the time in which we live because they point to the need to think beyond the given, and to think beyond the distorted, market-based hope offered to us by the advocates of casino capitalism. Such thinking rooted in the radical imagination is a central goal of civic education, which, in the words of poet Robert Hass, is “to refresh the idea of justice which is going dead in us all the time.”
Current protests in the United States make clear that 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 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. Crucial to the success of any collective struggle that matters is the necessity 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.
There is a need for educators, young people, artists and other cultural workers to develop a language of both critique and hope in which people can address the historical, structural and ideological conditions at the core of the violence being waged by the corporate and repressive state, and to make clear that government increasingly subsumed by global market sovereignty is no longer responsive to the most basic needs of young people. Nowhere will this struggle be more difficult than on the education front, a front in which a long-term organizing effort will have to take place to change consciousness, convince people that capitalism and democracy are not the same thing – and indeed are often in conflict – offer up a new vision of democracy, and create the ideological and collective momentum to create a broad-based social movement that moves beyond single-issue politics.
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 members of society is not a rhetorical issue. This challenge offers up new categories for defining how matters of representations, 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 New York, 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.
We live at a time in which it is more crucial than ever to imagine a future that does not repeat the present. Given the urgency of the problems we face – mounting economic inequality, creeping disenfranchisement, the rise of the incarceration state, entrenched racism, the expanding surveillance state, the threat of nuclear destruction, ecological devastation and in the United States, the collapse of democratic governance – I think it is all the more crucial to take seriously the challenge of Jacques Derrida’s provocation: “We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.”
My friend, the late Howard Zinn, got it right in his insistence that hope is the willingness “to hold out, even in times of pessimism, the possibility of surprise.” History is open, and the space of the possible is larger than the one on display.