The scourge of global neoliberalism and the need to reclaim democracy
By Henry Giroux and Chronis Polychroniou
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 police brutality.

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 capitalism.

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 capitalism.

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.

Within 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.

Henry 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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