Left behind?

American youth and the global fight for democracy

Part three

By Henry A. Giroux

Within the last 30 years, the United States under the reign of market fundamentalism has been transformed into a society that is more about forgetting than learning, more about consuming than producing, more about asserting private interests than democratic rights.

In a society obsessed with customer satisfaction and the rapid disposability of both consumer goods and long-term attachments, American youth are not encouraged to participate in politics. Nor are they offered the help, guidance and modes of education that cultivate the capacities for critical thinking and engaged citizenship. As Bauman points out, in a consumerist society, “the tyranny of the moment makes it difficult to live in the present, never mind understand society within a range of larger totalities.”1

Under such circumstances, according to Theodor Adorno, thinking loses its ability to point beyond itself and is reduced to mimicking existing certainties and modes of common sense. Under such circumstances, thought cannot sustain itself and becomes short-lived, fickle and ephemeral. If young people do not display a strong commitment to democratic politics and collective struggle, it is because they have lived through 30 years of “a debilitating and humiliating disinvestment in their future, especially if they are marginalised by class, ethnicity and race”.2

American youth have been born into “an abyss of failed sociality”

What is new about this generation of young people is that they have experienced first-hand the relentless spread of a neoliberal pedagogical apparatus with its celebration of an unbridled individualism and its near pathological disdain for community, public values and the public good. They have been inundated by a market-driven value system that encourages a culture of competitiveness and produces a theatre of cruelty that has resulted in “a weakening of democratic pressures, a growing inability to act politically, [and] a massive exit from politics and from responsible citizenship”.3 If American students are not protesting in large numbers the ongoing intense attack on higher education and the welfare state, it may be because they have been born into a society that is tantamount to what Alex Honneth has called “an abyss of failed sociality [one in which] their perceived suffering has still not found resonance in the public space of articulation”.4

Young people need passion for public values

Of course, there are students in the United States who are involved in protesting the great injustices they see around them, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the corruption of American politics by casino capitalism, a permanent war economy and the growing disinvestment in public and higher education. But they are indeed a minority and not because they are part of what is often called a ‘failed generation.’ On the contrary, the failure lies elsewhere and points to the psychological and social consequences of growing up under a neoliberal regime that goes to great lengths to privatise hope, derail public values and undercut political commitments. The way society conceptualises youth, especially poor youth of colour, has changed from viewing youth as a symbol of hope and promise into a sign of trouble and threat. What is clear as a result of this ‘failed sociality’ is that, if democracy is going to deliver on its promises, not only do young people need to have a passion for public values, social responsibility and participation in society, but they also need access to those public spaces that guarantee the rights to free speech, dissent, a quality education and critical dialogue.

Young people should no longer be seduced or controlled

At the heart of such public spaces is a formative culture that creates citizens who are critical thinkers capable of “putting existing institutions into question so that democracy again becomes society’s movement … that is to say, a new type of regime in the full sense of the term”.5 Young people need to be educated both as a condition of autonomy and for the sustainability of democratisation as an ongoing movement. Not only does a substantive democracy demand citizens capable of self- and social criticism, but it also, once again, requires a critical formative culture in which people are provided with the knowledge and skills to be able to participate in such a society. What we see in the struggle for educational reforms in Europe and the Middle East is a larger struggle for the economic, political and social conditions that give meaning and substance to what it means to make democracy possible. When we see 15-year-olds battle the established oppressive orders in the streets of Paris, Cairo, London and Athens for a more just society, they offer a glimpse of what it means for youth to enter “modernist narratives as trouble”.6 But trouble here exceeds dominant society’s eagerness to view them as a pathology, as monsters and a drain on the market-driven order. Instead, trouble speaks to something more suggestive of a “productive unsettling of dominant epistemic regimes under the heat of desire, frustration or anger”.7 The expectations that frame market-driven societies are losing their grip on young people, who can no longer be completely seduced or controlled by the tawdry promises and failed returns of corporate dominated and authoritarian regimes.

Only a matter of time before American youth recognise they are more than consumers

These youth movements tell us that the social visions embedded in casino capitalism and deeply authoritarian regimes have lost both their utopian thrust and their ability to persuade and intimidate through threats, coercion and state violence. Rejecting the terrors of the present and the modernist dreams of progress at any cost, young people have become, at least for the moment, harbingers of democracy fashioned through the desires, dreams and hopes of a world based on the principles of equality, justice and freedom. In doing so, they are pointing to a world order in which the future will certainly not mimic the present. What might be characterised by some commentators as an outburst of youthful utopianism reminiscent of the 1960s may in fact be the outcome of “the most concrete and pressing reality”.8

Youth culture has proven to be global in its use of new media, music and fashion and increasingly in terms of its collective anger against deep-seated injustice and its willingness to struggle against such forces. It is only a matter of time before American youth recognise that they are more than consumers; market-driven society is not synonymous with democracy; private rights are not more important than the social good; and society’s view of them as pathological and disposable demands a call for massive resistance in the streets, schools and every other public space in which justice and democracy matter.

When will youth look beyond the society they inherited?

One of the most famous slogans of May 1968 was ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible’. The spirit of that slogan is alive once again. But if it is to become more than a slogan, young people in the United States must join their counterparts across the globe in struggling to continue to build the formative cultures, critical public spheres, social movements and democratic institutions necessary to make that recognition and struggle possible. Thus, the most important question to be raised about American students is not why they do not engage in massive protests, but when will they look beyond the norms, discourses and rewards of the neoliberal society they have inherited from their elders? When will they begin to learn from their youthful counterparts protesting all over the globe that the first step in building a democratic society is to imagine a future different than the one that now stunts their dreams as much as their social reality? Only then can they be successful in furthering the hard and crucial task of struggling collectively to make a future based on the promise of democratic freedom happen. Taking a cue from the youth movement that helped to topple the Hosni Mubarak government, American youth must “understand their rights and know how to demand them” and realise “their own power” just like their counterparts in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Serbia, and all those other countries coming out of the darkness, heralded by the right to freedom, justice and equality.

References:

1. Bauman, Z. (2008) Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 159.

2. Ibid., p. 235. I have also taken up this theme in great detail in Giroux, H.A. (2010) Youth in a Suspect Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

3. Bauman, Z. (2001) The Individualized Society. London: Polity, p. 55.

4. Honneth, A. (2009) Pathologies of Reason. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 188.

5. Castoriadis, C. (1997) ‘Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime’, Constellations 4 (1), p. 10.

6. Comaroff, J. & J. (2006) ‘Reflections on Youth, from the Past to the Postcolony’ in Fisher, M. S. and Downey, G. (eds), Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 268.

7. Ibid.

8. Brault, P.A and Naas, M. (2010) ‘Translator’s Note’, in Nancy, J.L, The Truth of Democracy. New York: Fordham University Press, p. xii.

Filed Under: Featured ArticlesSummer 2011

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