Defending Higher Education in the Age of Neoliberal Savagery

Defending Higher Education in the Age of Neoliberal Savagery

Henry Giroux, McMaster University

Across the globe, the forces of predatory capitalism are on the march dismantling the historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state, defining profit making as the essence of democracy, increasing the role of corporate money in politics, waging an assault on unions, expanding the military-security state, promoting widening inequalities in wealth and income, defunding higher education,  fostering the erosion of civil liberties, and undercutting public faith in the defining institutions of democracy (see Brown 2005; Giroux 2008; Harvey 2003, 2005; Steger and Roy 2010).   As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish—from higher education to community health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good.

We increasingly live in societies based on the vocabulary of ‘choice’ and a denial of reality – a denial of massive inequality, social disparities, the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands, and a growing machinery of social death and culture of cruelty (Alexander 2010; Stiglitz 2012; Fuentes 2011). As power becomes global and is removed from local and nation-based politics, more and more individuals and groups are being defined by a free floating class of ultra-rich and corporate power brokers as disposable, redundant, or a threat to the forces of concentrated power.  A culture of crime and dispossession has become the organizing principle of society in which a certain kind of doubling takes place. Corporate bankers and power brokers trade with terrorists, bankrupt the economy, and commit all manner of crimes that impact on millions and they go free indicating that they are above the law and that the law is now in the hands of corrupt allies. At the same time, the US continues to criminalize all sorts of behavior ranging from dress codes to peaceful demonstrations. Low income whites, poor minorities, immigrants are being jailed in record numbers for nonviolent offenses as it becomes clear that justice is on the side of the rich, wealthy, and powerful who see these populations as both a threat and disposable.  One consequence of this doubling of justice is the emergence of a growing number of people, especially young people, who increasingly inhabit zones of hardship, suffering, exclusion, joblessness, and terminal exclusion.

This is all the more reason for educators and others to address important social issues and to defend higher education as a democratic public sphere. We live in a world in which everything is now privatized, transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” and subject to the vicissitudes of the military- security state (quoted in Silk and Andrews 2011: 436). One consequence is the emergence of what the late Tony Judt called an “eviscerated society”—“one that is stripped of the thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities to be found in” any viable democracy (Eagleton 2010: 78). This grim reality has produced a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will, and open democracy” (Honneth 2009, p.188). It is also part of a politics that strips society of any democratic ideals.

The ideological script is now familiar: there is no such thing as the common good; market values become the template for shaping all aspects of society; the free possessive individual has no obligations to anything beyond his or her self-interest; market fundamentalism trumps democratic values; the government, and particularly the welfare state, are the arch enemies of freedom; private interests negate public values; consumerism becomes the only obligation of citizenship; law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and war becomes the all-embracing organizing principle for developing society and the economy (Hall 2011; Harvey 2005; Giroux 2008). Given this current crisis, educators, artists, intellectuals, youth, and workers need a new political and pedagogical language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which capital draws upon an unprecedented convergence of resources–financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological–to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control. If educators and others are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to separate the traditional sphere of politics from the now transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, a market economy and a market society. Nothing will change unless the left and progressives take seriously the subjective underpinnings of neoliberal oppression. In the current historical conjuncture, politics is about more than the struggle over power and economics but also the struggle over particular modes of subjectivity and agency. Under neoliberal regimes, the production of desire, identity, values, and modes of identification are increasingly produced through forms of neoliberal public pedagogy. These new modes of pedagogy are distributed through a variety of sites and cultural apparatuses and interpellate in the Althusserian sense subjects defined exclusively by market-driven values and the prioritization of exchange values over public values.  The power of the imagination, dissent, and the willingness to hold power accountable constitute a major threat to authoritarian regimes, and increasingly to existing modes of higher education that now defined themselves as part of a larger neoliberal rationality and culture.

This neoliberal assault on politics, education, and culture suggests developing forms of subjectivity capable of challenging casino capitalism and other anti-democratic traditions including the increasing criminalization of social problems such as homelessness, while resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond the “dream world” of capitalism.  Under such circumstances, education becomes more than high stakes testing, an obsession with accountability schemes, an audit culture, zero tolerance policies, and a site for simply training students for the workforce.  At stake here is recognizing the power of education in creating the formative culture  and the necessary subjectivities, identities, dispositions, and capacities necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the very idea of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, social relations, and politics.

In both conservative and progressive discourses education is often reduced to a set of  corporate strategies and skills to use in order to teach pre-specified subject matter, one that defines the citizen as a consumer, schooling as an act of consumption,  faculty as entrepreneurs, and students as customers.  In opposition to the instrumental reduction of education to an adjunct of corporate and neoliberal interest—which has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenshipcritical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power (Nikolakaki 2012; Giroux 2011). For instance, it raises questions regarding who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Is the production of knowledge and curricula in the hands of teachers, textbook companies, corporate interests, the elite, or other forces?  Central to any viable notion that what makes a education critical is, in part, the recognition that is always implicated in power relations because it offers particular versions and visions of civic life, community, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment.  Education is part of a broader struggle over knowledge, subjectivities, values, and the future.  It is under a massive assault in Greece, the United States, and England because it  is one of the few places left that is capable of educating students to be critical, thoughtful, and engaged citizens willing to take risks, stretch their imaginations, and most importantly hold power accountable.  The consequences of turning universities into places that produce commodities represents the nightmare that neoliberalism defends as part of its methodical ruthlessness towards others, its hatred of democracy, and its fear of young people who increasingly realize they have been shut out of the language of democracy, justice, and hope.

One of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers, youth, and other cultural workers is the challenge of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility.  This means insisting that democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as higher education in which civic values, public scholarship, and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity, and civic courage.  Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. Neoliberalism is a toxin that is producing a predatory class of the walking dead who are producing what might be called dead zones of the imagination, and they are waging a fierce fight against the possibilities of a world in which the promise of justice and democracy are worth fight for, but the future is still open. The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility, and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency, and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization, and set of strategies to challenge the neoliberal nightmare engulfing the planet.



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Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York: Verso, 2011)

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Alex Honneth, Pathologies of Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009)

Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008)

Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Continuum, 2011)

Maria Nikolakaki, ed. Critical Pedagogy in the Dark Ages: Challenges and Possibilities, (New York: Peter Lang, 2012)

Michael L. Silk and David L. Andrews. “(Re) Presenting Baltimore: Place, Policy, Politics, and Cultural Pedagogy.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 33 (2011)

Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: Norton, 2012)


Henry Giroux is Global Television Network Chair in Communications at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University.