Theorizing a new radicalism: Henry Giroux on how to change the world

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Few scholars have made a more significant impact upon contemporary educational theory than Henry Giroux. In 2002, the American-Canadian academic was named by the British publisher Routledge as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period.

Giroux is a professor of English and Cultural Studies and the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He also serves as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University and sits on the Board of Directors at progressive news site Truthout where he is a regular columnist.

A vigorous opponent of war, neoliberalism and the ongoing retreat of the state from areas of social welfare, Giroux’s work mixes political, economic and social critique with an overarching concern about social responsibility and critical thinking. He has written extensively on public and post-secondary education in the United States, and the deepening of market forces within university campuses which, he argues, threatens the foundations of democracy around the world. In the vein of Laclau and Mouffe, Giroux is an advocate of radical democracy, described by Alan Keenan as the “vision of a mode of politics in which the democratic ideals of equality, freedom and popular control are allowed their most complete sway and fullest application.”

An author of more than 60 books, his most recent works include America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017), The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City Lights, 2014), Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2015) and Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (City Lights, 2015). His website can be found at www.henryagiroux.com.

Canadian Dimension spoke with Giroux about the current state of US politics, education and the importance of youth in building alternative democratic institutions to shift society away from militarism and consumerism toward a principled system of moral, social and political responsibility.

Harrison Samphir: Thanks for speaking with me today on such short notice, Henry. I’d like to begin by asking you about the unprecedented nationwide prison strike in the United States which is now entering its third week.

Henry Giroux: I think it’s significant for two reasons. I think it’s significant becuase prisoners are getting together and working across different sites in order to make a horrendous situation visible. I think it’s also significant in terms of how little attention it’s attracting from the mainstream media, which is an incredible indictment of the utter disregard that it takes—not only for understanding the horrible conditions in which inmates now find themselves from prison labour, or the conditions of jail itself—but it also speaks to the indifference the American people have to the rise of the punishing state and what a central role it plays in shaping American society.

HS: By the punishing state you mean the egregious and often racialized penalties for what are ostensibly petty, minor or consensual crimes such as drug dealing.

HG: What I mean by the punishing state, and you’ve mentioned some of the elements, is the way in which we begin to govern through crime. The prison becomes the model for a whole range of other institutions in which people are seen as suspects, their behaviour is criminalized, and we deal with social problems primarily through the medium of state violence. You see it in schools, you see it in municipal governments extorting money from the poor to basically pay for their retirements and cover the expenses incurred by the court system, and you see it, of course, in the paramilitarization of the police. So the punishing state really is the way in which various aspects of society are being militarized, especially with respect to young people, and especially poor minorities.

HS: With the US government’s recent announcement of the end of private contracts in the federal prison system, admittedly a major step in the right direction, there is also an impending election which threatens to further damage the criminal justice system with a Trump presidency. Can you comment on the “anti-politics” of Trump and how that might affect, among many other things, the prison industrial complex?

HG: It’s terrible. This election, in my mind, is an election over whether people want to live in a democracy or not. That’s not to say the United States is a democracy, it’s an oligarchy. But I do think that with Trump, we face something so unprecedented; it’s a move tipping over into an ocean of authoritarianism like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Here’s a candidate who is basically calling for more racial profiling even in in face of enormous state violence. He’s calling for a law and order regime. He’s calling for the increasing militarization of the police. He’s a guy who believes that torture is justified. He’s a guy who wants to throw poor black and brown people under the bus. He’s a guy who ignores civil liberties. He’s a fascist. And I think many people on the left don’t get it. Hillary is terrible, but this guy is something else. What this will mean for young people and what this will mean for journalists and dissent in general, the Supreme Court appointments, exceeds any stretch of the imagination. Think, for instance, what he’ll do immediately with Planned Parenthood. What he’ll do with social provisions. He believes climate change is not the result of humans. He’s a guy who doesn’t read books, has a fourth grade vocabulary, he says he likes people who are uneducated.

But more importantly he’s a white supremacist. You look at the ultra right wing groups that were on the fringe that are now with him at the centre of politics. Whether we’re talking about David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, or the endless number of right wing sites he’s engaged with. He’s retweeted 65 ultra right wing nationalists. Then of course there’s Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart, who’s an outright racist, and he doesn’t apologize for it. When you put all of these things together, it’s enormously dangerous, and certainly spells the end of democracy, any vestige of democracy, in the United States.

HS: This system of lesser-evilism, which we also face in Canada, is defined by the consolidation of party politics and a lack of alternatives. What does that mean for the majority?

HG: It means we need a third party. It means we have to stop equating democracy with capitalism. They’re not the same thing. I think we need to begin to understand how dreadful capitalism is as it’s become, as it moves so far away from social democracy and becomes more accelerated and intensified. It brings out a culture of cruelty. It intensifies enormous degrees of human suffering and misery, it accelerates wealth and power upward in the hands of the one tenth of one percent. Politics is now simply driven by economics. Public funding, public services and schools are derailed and defunded. It embraces what I call a logic of lawlessness. It’s a system that’s broken, and I think it’s very difficult people to understand that in some way. We have to think outside of parties that are tied to a financial elite that are not that much different, except in this particular instance in the relationship between Trump and Clinton.

The real issue here is we need some time to begin to develop alternative institutions and move away from single-issue movements. We need to bring them together so people have more power with which they can make a difference in how society is understood. We don’t need reform. We really need dismantlement. We need a restructuring as [W.E.B.] Du Bois argued a long time ago. It’s broken in a way that threatens the planet and human life.

HS: There are signs of movement in the UK where Labour members re-elected Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of their party after facing a challenge from MP Owen Smith. Do you think the NDP here in Canada should remodel itself as a worker-oriented socialist party?

HG: I think it’s a fantastic idea. Labour, as we all know, has a mixed legacy. Particularly in the United States, labour was utterly corrupted by capitalism. We know about the hierarchies, we know about worker revolts, we know about critical members being pushed out of the movement. We need a labour party that combines with social movements as we see with Podemos in Spain. We need to move away from these sort of weak sounding organizations that really don’t reflect in a fundamental way the type of change they should embody. The good news here is that when you look at the anger in the United States and you look at the anger that’s emerged in England over these broken economic-political systems, the real question is How do you now direct the needs of that anger away from the discourses of hate, bigotry and racism into a labour and political movement that actually recognizes and can articulate what the conditions are that people are facing in a way that people can recognize the possibility for individual and collective agency?

HS: If the displacement of economic and social insecurity has been met with nationalism and hatred, how do we realign energies elsewhere?

HG: One of the things we need to understand is that education is central to politics itself. The right understands this in the United States and all you have to do is look at the Powell memo of 1971 or the Trilateral Commission Reports in which they argued democracy is “in excess”, we need to educate people on the social costs market values inflict on society, and win people over to the ideals and values of democratization. Once we make education central to politics itself, then it becomes clear domination is not just about economic structures, but the colonization of consciousness. It’s also about changing people’s minds, it’s also about getting them to identify with causes that they can recognize or are meaningful to them. I think the second step is to basically start to create alternative public spheres as much as we can that provide options for people to be able to understand the relation of themselves to others, the market and to larger of society. We all know that cultural apparatuses—the merging of culture, politics and power—in the twenty-first century has taken on a new dimension and created a new historical moment in that education is the great colonizer. Thirdly, I think we need to move away from isolated movements that basically are fracturing the left and have no understanding of what it might mean to not give up those movements but connect them to wider movements so you can educate, mobilize, create alternative public spheres, and begin to think about creating the kind of society where social, economic and political justice matter.

HS: Among the left, one topic which has been quite popular among millennials has been identity politics; the move away from group-based politics toward concern for the individual and individual feelings. As an educator and professor, how do we reconcile the concerns of those who are talking about identity politics with those who are more concerned about systemic, superstructural ideas like class and economic justice, for example?

HG: I think this is a terrific question. It’s a real challenge. I think that trauma is a beginning, but I don’t think it’s the basis for agency; it’s only the beginning of politics. We don’t want to assume a political posture that mimics the worst notion of neoliberalism, which is that the public collapses into the private, and the private has no way of translating private troubles into larger systemic concerns. There’s a real danger with a politics that basically focuses so narrowly on the self that it sees it as an endpoint instead of the beginning of a much broader social movement.

HS: Do you think the left takes education seriously enough?

HG: No, not at all. When you think about people like Paulo Freire, when you think about education in Latin America and Europe, one of the things you realize is they don’t conflate education and schooling. They understand as C. Wright Mills did that there are cultural apparatuses that are engaged in forms of miseducation. They are shaping identities, values, practices that are very anti-democratic. But we seem to think that education in the United States is just about schools, and nothing else. If you look at cultural studies, I watched the field grow, and if you look at the major text there is nothing about critical pedagogy or education. Even a recent book that came out by Larry Grossberg [an American scholar of cultural studies and popular culture] doesn’t include education in its glossary of cultural studies terms. As the field became more theoreticized, all of the sudden pedagogy was seen as a second-order concern. The left has been so overdetermined to equate domination with economic structures that they have given up on assessing the other side of domination which operates through persuasion, rhetoric, symbolic forms, through the intellect and culture. It’s undermined enormously what the left can do.

HS: In which areas does education need the most restructuring?

HG: I think the most destruction that’s going on in the Western world right now is in England and the United States. Education in the United States has been mocked by the right as an important site of struggle. And one of the ways in which that struggle is being waged is by doing everything you can to kill the imagination of students. It’s being done in four ways: one is by defining them as consumers. Secondly it’s spying on them which means they’re constantly living in a culture of fear. Thirdly, they’re increasingly burdened by debt. And four, they increasingly find themselves in neoliberal institutions that are more about metrics than learning. They’re governed by an instrumentalism where all the players that matter are redefined in market terms. Students are clients. Faculty are adjuncts or clients. Research that matters has to somehow translate into business culture. All of these things add up to a real war on education. It wipes out. as much as possible, any possibility for critical thought and public intellectual thought. Higher education should be free. It’s not an entitlement it’s a right. The more informed people are the more democracy we have. It’s a central educational tenet and needs to be taken seriously in terms of policy and institutionalized.

HS: During the first Presidential Debate on September 26, Hillary Clinton adopted one of Bernie Sanders’ policy cornerstones by guaranteeing debt-free university education for all Americans. Do you think she will follow up on that promise?

HG: The way to understand Hillary Clinton is to recognize that she’s caught in a contradiction between her allegiance to the financial elite and defence industry, and a new generation of young people who just won’t accept that anymore, who don’t believe in it, and will struggle over it. If she gets elected, I see the potential for a massive social movement in response, and I’m very encouraged by that.

HS: You’ve spoken about the “flight of responsibility” of academics and other professionals whose discourses reach a limited audience and don’t contribute to broader dialogues. Can you elaborate on that concern?

HG: As you well know, it’s a concern I’ve had for a long time. The university is under siege everywhere. In ways that we’ve never seen before. Intellectuals and academics have a responsibility in some way to make every effort possible to turn the university into a public good, a democratic public sphere. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be doing esoteric work or pushing the frontiers of knowledge, but at the same time, it seems to me, they could take that knowledge and link it to public issues that would make it clear to people that the university is really a place that expands and deepens the possibility for democracy itself. People are often asking academics What do you do? What is your intellectual labour about? Often they can’t defend the conditions of their economic labour, they don’t know how to do it. Being an intellectual should mean you’re able to speak to multiple audiences and use your work to address social problems. It means you invest in students and teach them how to govern, not how to be governed. Too often intellectuals don’t speak in terms that suggest they’re addressing real social problems, or in terms that people can even understand. They hide behind a firewall of jargon.

HS: You’ve suggested young people should reclaim public spaces and engage in the progressive use of digital technologies. What might that look like?

HG: I think of what happened in Quebec with the student strikes [Maple Spring] and the work they did for two years using those technologies in all kinds of ways. I think that one of the things we need to address is that the internet and those technologies don’t constitute what we call democracy. The technologies are often owned by companies that engage, not only in spying, but the commodification of everything online. But young people are so savvy about this technology, that all it takes is linking that technology to a different set of values. Rather than looking at it in the terms set by Facebook and Google, we have to think how we can build alternative communities with it. How do we politicize this technology so that people get adequate access to healthcare and education and so on, outside of the orthodoxy of the authoritarian state? How can they use this technology to enhance their own sense of social and collective agency? I think young people get a bad rap about technology. I’ve never been more inspired in my life than I am right now by the faith of young people.

HS: On the topic of technology, Andrew Sullivan wrote a provocative essay in New York Magazine about our society’s “distraction sickness”, and the obsession with the 24-hour news cycle. He describes how addiction to screens has caused widespread anxiety and depression. How are we to come to terms with this digital addiction? Do you notice it in the university classroom?

HG: I think his piece is a symptomatic warning of how an individual does not theorize adequately enough the situation in which he finds himself. This society is addicted to consumerism. It’s addicted to the culture of the immediate. It’s addicted to the spectacle of violence. It’s addicted to instant gratification. And all of the things he says in the article are true, but they’re not just limited to the internet, they’re part of a larger social order that reinforces those relationships in every sphere of society. Rather than isolating new technologies, we need to ask What are the values that are producing this? What values are leading to the death of intimacy and teaching that it doesn’t involve human beings? Or that we have to be doing 75 different things at once? It seems to me that this is another classic example where pedagogical interventions are necessary. In other words, how do we begin to take literacy seriously? How do we recognize that literacy is a multiple? We’ve got to educate kids about what that means.

HS: My final question is open-ended. How do we change the world?

HG: We change the world by first recognizing the way in which the world works, and asking ourselves, what kind of world do we want? Power often disguises itself by becoming invisible. We need to have a vision of a radically democratic society. Then we have to think about what it might mean to get there. Then we have to think about what it means to organize to make sure those changes work. And we need a faith, not only in ourselves and in economic and social justice, but in the collective possibility of change. Because the greatest narcotic of all is the one Huxley spoke to. It’s the one that can seduce you through consumerism, it can teach you that all problems are a matter of individual character, it can take away your imagination, it can chill the possibility of individual and collective agency. That’s what we have to address.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.