Originally published Friday, 18 May 2012 14:46
Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011. (Photo: JSsocal)
“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair inevitable.” -Raymond Williams
American society has lost its claim on democracy. One indication of such a loss is that the crises produced on a daily basis by crony capitalism operate within a discourse of denial. Rather than address the ever proliferating crises produced by market fundamentalism as an opportunity to understand how the United States has arrived at such a point in order to change direction, the dominating classes now use such crises as an excuse for normalizing a growing punishing and warfare state, while consolidating the power of finance capital and the mega-rich. Uncritically situated in an appeal to common sense, the merging of corporate and political power is now constructed on a discourse of refusal – a denial of historical conditions, existing inequalities and massive human suffering – used to bury alive the conditions of its own making. The notion that neoliberal capitalism has less interest in free markets than an enormous stake in the dominance of public life by corporations no longer warrants recognition and debate in mainstream apparatuses of power. Hence, the issue of what happens to democracy and politics when corporations dominate almost all aspects of American society is no longer viewed as a central question to be addressed in public life.(1)
As society is increasingly organized around shared fears, escalating insecurities and a post 9/11 politics of terror; the mutually reinforcing dynamics of a market-based fundamentalism and a government that appears immune to any checks on its power render democratic politics both bankrupt and inoperable. The hatred of government on the part of Republican extremists has resulted not only in attacks on public services, the cutting of worker benefits, the outsourcing of government services, a hyper-nationalism and the evisceration of public goods such as schools and health care, but also in an abdication of the responsibility to govern. The language of the market with its incessant appeal to self-regulation and the virtues of a radical individualization of responsibility now offer the primary dysfunctional and poisonous index of what possibilities the future may hold, while jingoistic nationalism and racism hail its apocalyptic underbelly.
The notion that democracy requires modes of economic and social equality as the basis for supportive social bonds, democratic communities and compassionate communal relations disappears along with the claims traditionally made in the name of the social justice, human rights and democratic values. Entrepreneurial values such as competitiveness, self-interest, deregulation, privatization and decentralization now produce self-interested actors who have no interest in promoting the public good or governing in the public interest.(2) Under these circumstances, the 1 percent and the financial, cultural and educational institutions they control declare war on government, immigrants, poor youth, women, and other institutions and groups considered disposable. Crony capitalism produces great wealth for the few and massive human suffering for the many around the globe. At the same time, it produces what João Biehl calls “zones of social abandonment,” which “accelerate the death of the unwanted” through a form of economic Darwinism “that authorizes the lives of some while disallowing the lives of others.”(3)
As market relations become synonymous with a market society, democracy becomes both the repressed scandal of neoliberalism and its ultimate fear.(4) In such a society, cynicism becomes the ideology of choice as public life collapses into the ever-encroaching domain of the private, and social ills and human suffering become more difficult to identify, understand and engage with critically. The result, as Jean Comaroff points out, is, “In our contemporary world, post 9/11, crisis and exception has become routine and war, deprivation and death intensify despite ever denser networks of humanitarian aid and ever more rights legislation.”(5) In addition, as corporate power and finance capital gain ascendancy over society, the depoliticization of politics and the increasing transformation of the social state into the punishing state has resulted in the emergence of a new form of authoritarianism in which the fusion of corporate power and state violence increasingly permeates all aspects of everyday life.(6) Such violence with its every expanding machinery of death and surveillance creates an ever-intensifying cycle, rendering citizens’ political activism dangerous and even criminal as is obvious in the current assaults being waged by the government against youthful protesters on college campuses, in the streets, and in other spaces now colonized by capital and its machinery of enforcement.(7)
In opposition to the attacks on critical thought, dissent, the discourse of hope and what Jacques Ranciere calls the erosion of “the public character of spaces, relations and institutions,”(8) the Occupy movement has provided both a call to and demonstrated a common investment in what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s call the need “to hang on to intellectual and real freedom” and to insure that thinking does not become “immune to the suggestion of the status quo,”(9) thus losing its “secure hold on possibility.”(10) This is evident in the willingness of the protesters’ “challenge to capitalism front and center among its concerns and passions [and] to make economic injustice for the 99 percent and the ruling economic system central, defining issues.”(11)Worth noting is that the Occupy protesters believe that intellectuals (those willing to exercise critical thought) come from a broad range of jobs, fields and institutions and should inhabit the realm of politics, be willing to cross intellectual and physical boundaries, connect questions of understanding and power and unite passion, commitment and conscience in new ways in order to reflect on and engage with the larger society. This intervention is both intellectual and political and it suggests contesting neoliberal capitalism on several registers.
At issue here is that the protesters seek to rescue the political possibilities of ambivalence from the powerful, break open the sordid appeal to common sense, unmask casino capitalism’s most pernicious myths (especially the alleged belief that capitalism and democracy are the same), struggle to restage power in productive ways, enact social agency from those places where it has been denied and work to provide an accurate historical accounting of the racial state and racial power. What has emerged in the Occupy movement is the refusal on the part of protesters to accept the dominant scripts of official authority and the limitations they impose upon individual and social agency, thus using spaces of critique, dissent, dialogue and collective resistance as starting points from which to build unfamiliar, potential worlds. In the process of thinking seriously about structures of power, state formation, militarism, capitalist formations, class and pedagogy, the protesters have refused to substitute moral indignation for the hard work of contributing to critical education and enabling people to expand the horizons of their own sense of agency in order to collectively challenge established structures of financial and cultural power.
This rethinking of politics bristles with a deeply rooted refusal to serve up well-worn and obvious truths, reinforce existing relations of power, or bid retreat to an official rendering of common sense that promotes “a corrosive and demoralizing silence.”(12) What emerges in these distinct but politically allied voices is a pedagogy of disruption, critique, recovery and possibility, one that recognizes that there is no viable politics without will and awareness and that critical education motivates and provides a crucial foundation for understanding and intervening in the world. As Stanley Aronowitz argues, “The system survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population and the conformity of its intellectuals.”(13) While a pedagogy of disruption and possibility offer no guarantees, it does create the formative culture necessary to create the conditions to enable the hard work necessary to make the “long march” “through the institutions, the workplaces and the streets of the capitalist metropoles.”(14)
Collectively, the Occupy movement also explores, in different ways, how politics demands a new language and a broader view of pedagogy that is both critical and visionary. This commitment translates into a pedagogy capable of illuminating the anti-democratic forces and sites that threaten human lives, the environment and democracy itself; at the same time, its visionary nature cracks open the present to reveal new horizons, different futures and the promise of a global democracy. And yet, under the reign of neoliberal ideology, racist xenophobic nationalisms, the rise of the punishing state, and a range of other anti-democratic forces, citizenship is increasingly privatized, commodified, or subject to various religious and ideological fundamentalisms that feed a sense of powerlessness and disengagement from democratic struggles, if not politics itself. Neoliberalism presents misfortune as a weakness and the logic of the market instructs individuals to rely on their own wits if they fall on hard times, especially since the state has washed its hands of any responsibility for the fate of its citizens. And it is precisely this marriage between fate and the dictates of capitalism that the Occupy movement is challenging.
If the act of critical translation is crucial to a democratic politics, it faces a crisis of untold proportions in the United States, as the deadening reduction of the citizen to a consumer of services and goods empties politics of substance by stripping citizens of their political skills, offering up only individual solutions to social problems, and dissolving all obligations and sense of responsibility for the other in an ethos of hyper-individualism and a narrowly privatized linguistic universe. The logic of the commodity penetrates all aspects of life, and the most important questions driving society no longer seem concerned about matters of equity, social justice and the fate of the common good. The most important choice now facing most people is no longer about living a life with dignity and freedom, but facing the grim choice between survival and dying. As the government deregulates, privatizes and outsources key aspects of governance, turning over the provisions of collective insurance, security and care to private institutions and market-based forces, it undermines the social contract, while “the present retreat of the state from the endorsement of social rights signals the falling apart of a community in its modern, ‘imagined’ yet institutionally safeguarded incarnation.”(15)
One consequence is that the specters of human suffering, misfortune and misery caused by social problems are now replaced with the discourses of personal safety and individual responsibility. Increasingly, as social institutions give way to the machinery of surveillance, punishment and containment, social provisions along with the social state disappear. Similarly, the exclusionary logic of ethnic, racial and religious divisions render more individuals and groups disposable, excluded from public life – languishing away in prisons, dead-end jobs, or the deepening pockets of poverty – and effectively prevented from engaging in politics in a meaningful, powerful way. Instead of vibrant democratic public spheres, neoliberal capital creates what João Biehl calls “zones of social abandonment,” the new domestic “machineries of inscription and invisibility” that thrive on the energies of the unwanted, unbankable and unrecognized – a category that now includes more and more groups including students, women, immigrants, poor people of color and those who refuse to narrate themselves in the sphere of consumer culture.(16)
As the machineries of social death expand, politics seems to take place elsewhere – in globalized regimes of power that are indifferent to traditional forms of power and hostile to any notion of collective responsibility to address human suffering and social problems. Chris Hedges captures the spirit and politics of this mode of corporate colonialism and it is worth repeating. He writes:
We are controlled by tiny corporate entities that have no loyalty to the nation and indeed in the language of traditional patriotism are traitors. They strip us of our resources, keep us politically passive and enrich themselves at our expense…The colonized are denied job security. Incomes are reduced to subsistence level. The poor are plunged into desperation. Mass movements, such as labor unions, are dismantled. The school system is degraded so only the elites have access to a superior education. Laws are written to legalize corporate plunder and abuse, as well as criminalize dissent. And the ensuing fear and instability – keenly felt this past weekend by the more than 200,000 Americans who lost their unemployment benefits – ensure political passivity by diverting all personal energy toward survival. It is an old, old game.
It is an old game reinforced by an authoritarian politics that is unapologetic about its abuses and ongoing production of violence and human misery. It is a politics that owes more to the older fascist regimes of Germany, Italy and Chile than to any notion of democracy. And it is precisely in the reclaiming of politics, one that challenges the current structures of power and ideology, that the Occupy movement offers its greatest promise. What is particularly important in this movement is the growing recognition that moral condemnations of greed, corruption, consumerism and injustice provide only “the minimal positive program for socio-political change,” which further demands addressing the more crucial need for systemic transformations in American society.(18)
We live at a time when the crisis of politics is inextricably connected to the crisis of education and agency. Any viable politics or political culture can only emerge in a determined effort to provide the economic conditions, public spaces, pedagogical practices and social relations in which individuals have the time, motivation and knowledge to engage in acts of translation that reject the privatization of the public sphere, the lure of ethno-racial or religious purity, the emptying of democratic traditions, the crumbling of the language of commonality and the decoupling of critical education from the unfinished demands of a global democracy. As the Occupy movement increasingly addresses what it means politically and pedagogically to confront the impoverishment of public discourse, the collapse of democratic values, the erosion of its public spheres and the corporate colonizing of the American society, it puts in place a language for developing public spheres where critical thought, dialogue, exchange and collective action can take place. At work here is the attempt to develop a new political language for rescuing modes of critical agency and social grievances that have been abandoned or orphaned to the dictates of global neoliberalism, a punishing state and a systemic militarization of public life. Against such hard times for the promise of democracy, the Occupy movement offers an incisive language of analysis and hope, a renewed sense of political commitment, different democratic visions and a politics of possibility.
Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market value replaces social values and people with the education and means appear more and more willing to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of family, religion and consumption. In this case, hope is privatized and foreclosed, just as the conditions disappear in which certain kinds of democratic politics are possible. Those without the luxury of combining individual, political and social rights that make choice meaningful pay a terrible price in the form of material suffering and the emotional hardship and political disempowerment that are its constant companions. Even those who live in the relative comfort of the middle classes must struggle with a poverty of time in an era in which the majority must work more than they ever have to make ends meet.
Mainstream theorists, intellectuals and talk-show pundits revere the thought that politics as a site of contestation, critical exchange and engagement is in a state of terminal arrest or has simply come to an end. The only politics that matters for this diverse group of extremists is a politics that benefits corporations, the rich and the servants of finance capital. However, the Occupy movement argues in diverse and often complex ways that too little attention is paid to what it means to think through the realm of the political, particularly how the struggle over radical democracy is inextricably linked to creating and sustaining public spheres where individuals can be engaged as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need not only as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up. The growing cynicism in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying intellectual, ethical, economic and political projects, especially as they work to reframe questions of agency, ethics and meaning for a substantive democracy.
For the Occupy movement, there is a pressing need to get beyond the discourse of negation in order to imagine another world, a future that does not simply reproduce the present. Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, involving the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites and the renewal of civic courage among citizens, residents, and others who wish to address pressing social problems.(19) Hope says “no” to the totalizing discourse of the neoliberal present; it contains an activating presence that opens current political structures to critical scrutiny, affirms dissent and pluralizes the possibilities of different futures. In this sense, hope is a subversive force.
In opposition to those who seek to turn hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss efforts to look beyond the horizon of the given, the promise of the Occupy movement lies in its ability to develop the spaces and places for a democratic formative culture, language of collective struggle, one that embodies and becomes both a project and a pedagogical condition for providing a sense of opposition and engaged struggle. As a project, Andrew Benjamin insists, hope must be viewed as “a structural condition of the present rather than as the promise of a future, the continual promise of a future that will always have to have been better.”(20) At the same time, as Alain Touraine points out, “Opposition to domination is not enough to create a movement; a movement must put forward demands in the name of a positive attribute.”(21) Clearly, hope in this instance is not an individual proclivity or a simple act of outrage, but rather a crucial part of a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible.
Hence, hope is more than a politics – it is also a pedagogical and performative practice that provides the foundation for enabling human beings to learn about their potential as moral and civic agents. Hope is the outcome of those pedagogical practices and struggles that tap into memory and lived experiences, while at the same time linking individual responsibility with a progressive sense of social change. As a form of utopian longing, educated hope opens up horizons of comparison by evoking not just different histories, but also different futures; at the same time, it substantiates the importance of ambivalence while problematizing certainty. In the words of Paul Ricoeur, it serves as “a major resource as the weapon against closure.”(22) Critical hope is a subversive force when it pluralizes politics by opening up a space for dissent, making authority accountable and becoming an activating presence in promoting social transformation.
The current limits of the utopian imagination are related, in part, to the failure of many individuals and social groups to imagine what pedagogical conditions might be necessary to bring into being forms of political agency and social movements that expand the operations of individual rights, social provisions and democratic freedoms. At the same time, a politics and pedagogy of hope is neither a blueprint for the future nor a form of social engineering, but a belief, simply, that different futures are possible, which holds open matters of contingency, context and indeterminacy. It is only through critical forms of education that human beings can learn to “combine a gritty sense of limits [of the present] with a lofty vision of possibility.”(23) Hope poses the important challenge of how to reclaim social agency within a broader struggle to deepen the possibilities for social justice and global democracy. The Occupy movement recognizes that any viable notion of political and social agency is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unravelling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”(24)
The project of asking questions that make power accountable, of reclaiming politics from exile, must strike a careful balance between leaving itself forever open to future questions and acting decisively to change the lived experience of ever-expanding ranks of dispossessed and disposable peoples. Reclaiming politics requires a form of educated hope that accentuates how politics is played out on the terrain of imagination and desire as well as in material relations of power and concrete social formations. Freedom and justice, in this instance, have to be mediated through the connection between civic education and political agency, which presupposes that the goal of educated hope is not to liberate the individual from the social – a central tenet of neoliberalism – but to take seriously the notion that the individual can only be liberated through the social.
Central to the Occupy movement is the premise that hope as a subversive, defiant practice should provide a link, however transient, provisional and contextual, between vision and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential, it has to be grounded in a pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pessimism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the on-going struggle for a global democracy. One of the great promises of the Occupy movement is its recognition that the greatest threat to social justice and democracy is not merely the existence of casino capitalism, but the disappearance of critical discourses that allow us to think outside of and against the demands of official power as well as the spaces where politics can even occur, where people can learn and assert a sense of critical agency, embrace the civic obligation to care for the other and refuse to take “shelter where responsibility for one’s actions need not be taken by the actors.”(25)
An inclusive democratic politics must be responsive to the varied needs of the citizens who comprise it. In order to facilitate critical thought and nurture the flexibility it requires, the Occupy movement protesters do not provide totalizing answers as much as they offer better questions. They open up conversations in which acts of critical recovery unleash possibilities that have been repressed by official history or caught in the trap of existing social realities. In an age when the dominant tendency among academics is to follow power and fashion, the protesters exhibit both a strong sense of political conviction and an admirable civic courage in their willingness to speak against the status quo, take risks and struggle to give history back to those who are increasingly removed from the political sphere. They also put their bodies on the line in the face of a society that is willing to unleash the police on its youthful protesters rather than invest in their future.
There is more at stake here than saying no, making power visible and recognizing that our individual and collective experiences are not dictated by fate. There is also the challenge of confronting the actual with the possible, of pulling hope down to earth, of making sure that the possibilities we mobilize engage real problems and concrete expressions of domination and power. In addition, there is the need to translate theoretical concerns into public action, lift up the level of discourse in an attempt to connect the academy to the dynamics of everyday life and give worldly expression to our critical work. Politics as an act of translation is essential to the struggle against the coming darkness that brands critical judgment as an enemy of the state and destroys public space, paving the way for existing elements of authoritarianism to crystallize into new forms that deform language. A democratic politics may take many forms, but central to connecting its diverse expressions is the need for individuals, groups and social movements to be able to reveal individual problems as public concerns, use theoretical resources to change concrete and systemic relations of power and challenge “a hateful politics toward the public realm, toward politics.”(26)
Such a challenge is essential to any emancipatory politics of hope and meaning. Without the ability to see how each of our lives is related to the greater good, we lack the basis for recognizing ourselves bearers of rights and responsibilities – the precondition of our being human – who can assume the task of governance rather than simply be governed. We lack the basis for raising questions about the goals and aims of our society and what we want our society as a whole to accomplish, especially in the context of the challenge of creating a global democracy. In short, we lack what makes a democratic politics viable. The alternative is a growing national security state and a species of authoritarianism that encourages profit-hungry monopolies; the ideology of faith-based certainty; the pursuit of ethno-racial purity; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of civil liberties; the practice of torture; and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, responsible dissent, critical thought and collective struggles. The crises facing American society are much too urgent to give up on and necessitate a resurgence of critique and a discourse of hope premised on the feasibility of a more democratic and just future along with the social movements that will make it possible.
2. Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, “Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction,” (Oxford University Press, 2010). See also Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011), pp. 705-728.
11. Richard D. Wolff, “Capitalism is Taboo in America,” Truthout (May 15, 2012). Onlinehere.
12. Ellen Willis, “Three Elegies for Susan Sontag,” New Politics X, no.3 (Summer 2005), (accessed January 2007)
17. Chris Hedges, “Colonized by Corporations,” Truthdig (May 14, 2012). Online here.
18. Slavoj Žižek, “Occupy Wall Street: what is to be done next?” The Guardian UK, (April. 24, 2012).
19. On the related issues of hope and pedagogy, see Mark Cote, Richard J.F. Day and Greig de Peuter, eds. “Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).
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