The scourge of global neoliberalism and the need to reclaim democracy
By Henry Giroux and
Online Journal Contributing Writers
Feb 15, 2008, 00:19
After 30 some years of neoliberal policies, the class war on
behalf of the rich is getting more ruthless and more vicious, prompting Naomi
Klein to use torture as a metaphor in order to capture and describe the
ruthlessness of the re-emergence of neoliberal shock therapy in the latest and
most powerful book she has written, titled The
Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
The insidious class warfare launched by the rich against the
working poor and the middle classes is creating Orwellian dystopias, lauded in
papers such as the New York Times as
the second Gilded Age. Stories abound about the lifestyles of celebrities and
billionaires who spend $50,000 to have their dogs groomed or hand over a mere
$20 million to take a ride into space. At the same time, nothing is reported
about the destructive power of corporations and market fundamentalism on every
facet of life. Governments around the world, from neoliberal to social
democratic ones, are promoting policies that transfer wealth from the many to
the few and shaping in the process the conditions for ravaged and broken
societies from poverty, unemployment, social malaise and discontent, crime and
As social inequality drives the engine of a ravaging
neoliberalism, the global marketplace wages a war against social citizenship,
the social contract, and all vestiges of the public good. Various reports over
the years by supra-governmental institutions such as Social Watch, UNICEF, and
UNDP have drawn attention to the deteriorating socio-economic conditions around
the world. Internationally renowned economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul
Krugman decry the undemocratic and unethical agenda of the neoliberal elite.
With power loosened from traditional modes of politics,
public policy has been hijacked by global corporate elites and the state has
been forced to abandon its comprehensive social welfare agenda in order to
cater to the needs of the plutocrats. Wedded to the belief that the market should be the organizing principle
for all political, social, and economic decisions, neoliberalism wages an
incessant attack on democracy, public institutions, and non-commodified values.
Privatization, deregulation, commercialization, and cuts in social spending rule the day and
the prevailing mentality is that everything is for sale and what is not has no
value as a public good or practice.
With the merger of state with corporate interests, we are
seeing the last of the social state (Scandinavia, with its strong welfare
tradition, represents the exception to the rule among advanced capitalist
nations as neoliberal parties are coming to power by having befriended welfare
politics) and the emergence of a new kind of state ruled by corporate
interests, deeply aligned with the imperatives of the military, and
increasingly exercising control through its prisons, police forces, and the
criminal justice system.
In the United States, George Bush repeatedly vetoes major
spending measures that would have funded education, health care and job
training programmes but eagerly signs bills that increase Pentagon funding and
strengthen the military-industrial complex, while transferring billions of
public funds to the coffers of private firms and corporations.
In central, southeast Europe and throughout eastern Europe,
governments are vying to downsize the public sector and to privatize as many
social services as they can get away with. Higher education itself is
increasingly being replaced by the goals and values of the market. Governments
underfund tertiary education in order to open up the sector to private market
forces -- a recommendation long made by the World Bank -- and seek to convert
higher education into a form of training for the needs of corporate and digital
There is a clear correlation between neoliberal policies and
incarceration rate. As the strongest advocate of neoliberal policies, the
United States incarcerates about eight times more of its people per capita than
Western European countries.
The state under neoliberalism does
not disappear as much as it gets reconstructed, largely as a repressive force
for providing a modicum of safety for the rich and privileged classes while
increasing its focus on the disciplining and displacing those populations and
groups that pose a threat to the dominant social order.
As the state is hollowed out and
public services are either cut or privatized, repression increases and replaces
compassion as real issues -- long-term unemployment, poverty, homelessness,
youth violence, and drug epidemics -- are overlooked in favor of policies that
favor discipline, containment and control.
Today�s political-economic and
social culture is reinforced by fear and insecurity about the present, and a
deep-seated skepticism in the public mind and worry about the future holds a
more obscene version of the present. As the discourse of neoliberalism seizes
the public imagination, there is no vocabulary for political or social
transformation, democratically inspired visions, or critical notions of social
agency to enlarge the meaning and purpose of democratic public life. Ideas and
freedom are associated through the prevailing ideology and principles of the
market and the public feels there is no alternative. Hope is foreclosed.
What explains the rise and
dominance of neolibelalism and how do we challenge it?
The reasons for this historically
unique and totally obscene one-sided class warfare, which has caused so much
human suffering and destruction, are many and varied. They range from
structural changes in advanced capitalist economies to the impact of the
collapse of socialism; they vary from the distancing of power
from traditional modes of politics because of the impact of negative
globalization to the emergence of militarized states, the celebration of a new
social Darwinism, and an ongoing war against minorities of class and color, who
have become the human waste products of globalization. Moreover, the left
appears to be suffering from a conceptual and political crisis, plagued by
deterministic thinking on one side and refusal to theorize the need for new
forms of individual and social agency within the geography of transnational
The reorganization of the labor
process -- having shifted away from industrial capitalism to a post-fordist,
highly mobile form of production coupled by the violent, in some cases, opening
up of the world�s markets has greatly transformed the relation between capital
and labor. As a result of the revolutionary development brought about by the
new technologies and information systems, work relations, the labor process,
and income distribution have been redefined and reshaped according to the
commands and logic of global capital. The conflict between an industrial labor
force and industrial capital no longer defines the basic relations in advanced
capitalist society. The industrial labor movement has become quite weak and with
the sharply increasing atomization of working people, the balance between
capital and labor has been radically altered.
The media takeover by big
corporations and the newly emerging plutocrats has also contributed
significantly, in conjunction with the impoverishment of many intellectuals by
virtue of their growing refusal to speak out critically about the unjust social
order, to the ideological triumph of neoliberalism.
The great challenge to
neoliberalism can only come through the reclaiming of a language of power,
social movements, politics, and ethics that is capable of examining the effects
of the neoliberal order on labor, the environment, culture and all those
spheres and spaces in which democratic identities and relations of power are
essential to viable forms of political agency. Educators and intellectuals must
link learning to social change, recognizing that every sphere of social life is
open to political action.
The ideologies and social elations
offered by neoliberalism must be challenged by producing new public spheres,
places, and spaces that forge the knowledge, identifications, emotional
investments, and social practices necessary to produce political subjects and
social agents capable of extending and deepening the basis of radical democracy.
The school, the workplace, the market, the cultural terrain must become infused
with critical consciousness and critical and practical engagements with present
social behaviors, institutional formations and everyday practices.
Higher education needs to be
reclaimed as an ethical and political response to the demise of democratic
public life. Higher education needs to reassert itself in the democratic
project and society must come again to the realization that learning is more
than preparing students for the workplace, citizenship is more than conspicuous
consumption and being part of the cheap, banal entertainment provided by
today�s TV networks, and democracy is more than making choices at the local
mall. Higher education is not only about issues of work and economics, but also
of questions about justice, social freedom, and self-development, as well as
about a need and a mission to expand the human imagination.
To confront the deadly politics of
capitalist globalization, a transnational democratic political movement must
develop that not only recognizes the changing nature of globalization under the
imperatives of capitalism, but also provides those forms of educated hope that
offer the grounds for creating public intellectuals and social movements capable
of linking education to critical agency, and linking learning to broader global
considerations and social issues.
the discourse of neoliberalism, democracy becomes synonymous with free markets
while issues of equality, social justice, and freedom are stripped of any
substantive meaning and are used to disparage those who suffer systemic
deprivation and chronic punishment. Individual misfortune, like democracy
itself, is now viewed either as an excess or as being in need of radical
containment. Democracy as both an ethical referent and a promise for a better
future is much too important to cede to a slick new mode of authoritarianism
advanced by advocates of neoliberalism and other fundamentalists. Democracy as
theory, practice, and promise for a better future must be critically engaged,
struggled over, and reclaimed if it is to be used in the interests of social
justice and the renewal of the labor movement as well as the building of
national and international social movements, the struggle for the social state,
and the necessity to confront hierarchy, inequality, and power as ruling
principles in an era of rampant neoliberalism.
Democracy needs to be reclaimed and radicalized as part of a broader project of
viewing democracy as a site of intense struggle over matters of representation,
participation, and shared power. The stakes are too high
to ignore such a task. We live in dark times and the specter of neoliberalism
and other modes of authoritarianism are gaining ground throughout the globe. We
need to rethink the meaning of a democratic politics, take risks,
and exercise the courage necessary to reclaim the pedagogical conditions,
visions, and economic projects that make the promise of a democracy and a
different future worth envisioning and fighting for.
Giroux is Global Television Network Chair Professor at McMaster University in
Canada. Chronis Polychroniou is Professor and Head of
Academic Affairs at Mediterranean University College in Greece.
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