Higher education under siege: challenging casino capitalism’s culture of cruelty

Ongoing education reforms in Britain and the US are set in the context of wider issues concerning marketisation, neoliberalism and political protest.

In a recent review of "The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance" and "In Defence of Public Higher Education" (otherwise known as ‘the alternative white paper’), Tim Black of Spiked takes issue with what he sees as a ‘rearguard action in defence of UK higher education’. He is especially critical of the ‘anti-capitalist chaff’ and ‘political fantasy’ that, in his opinion, characterise the aforementioned publications.

Here, Henry A. Giroux looks at some of the wider issues concerning the marketisation of education, neoliberalism and political protest.

With all due respect to Charles Dickens, it now appears to be the worst of times for public and higher education in America and England; but at the same time, amid all of the despair and foolishness on the part of right-wing politicians and conservative and corporate interest, it is not entirely clear that the spring of hope is beyond reach. 

At the current moment, workers and young people  are marching and demonstrating all over the globe against the dictates, values, and policies of a market-driven economy that has corrupted politics, pushed democracy to its vanishing point, and undermined public values. Unions, public school teachers, higher education and all of those public spheres necessary to keep civic values alive are being challenged in a way that both baffles and shocks anyone who believes in the ideals and promises of a substantive democracy.

In England, higher education is in a state of crisis as the liberal-conservative government punishes students with egregious tuition increases and demoralizes education by defining it through the lens of a market-driven set of values and ideals.  In the United States, union busting politicians such as governors Scott Walker and Chris Christi of Wisconsin and New Jersey respectively not only want to gut social services and sell them off to the highest bidder, they are also symptomatic of a political fringe movement that wants to destroy the critical culture, public servants, and institutions that give any sense of democratic vitality, substance, and hope to public and higher education in the United States.

As the meaning of democracy is betrayed by its transformation into a market society, corporate power and money appear unchecked in their ability to privatize, deregulate, and destroy all vestiges of public life. As David De Graw points out, the majority of wealth in the United States is held by “the upper one-tenth of one percent of the population.”  More specifically, he writes “the richest 400 people in the US have as much wealth as 154 million Americans combined that 50 percent of the entire country. The top economic 1 percent of the US population haw has a record 40 percent of all wealth, and have more wealth than 90 percent of the population.” This type of  financial power creates massive inequalities and hardship for those marginalized by class and race in every aspect of American society, extending from an exclusion from basic health care to an inability to secure jobs and rise above the poverty line. The figures here are staggering with over 68.3 million Americans struggling to eat enough food, 20 percent of all children live below the poverty line, over 30 million people are unemployed or underemployed, and more than 2.3 million people, mostly people of color are incarcerated.  

America’s military wars abroad are now matched by the war at home; that is, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have found their counterpart in the war against the poor, immigrants, young people, unions, public sector workers, the welfare state, and school teachers. The call for shared sacrifices on the part of conservatives and Tea Party extremists becomes code for destroying the social state, preserving and increasing the power of mega rich corporations, and securing the wealth of the top one percent of the population with massive tax breaks while placing the burden of the current global economic meltdown on the shoulders of working people and the poor.  Deficit reductions and  austerity policies that allegedly address the global economic meltdown caused by the financial hawks running Wall Street now do the real work of stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights, dismantling programs long associated with social services, and relegate young people to mind-deadening schools and a debut ridden future. Hundreds of thousands of public school teachers are losing their jobs while millions of Americans are losing their homes.

While one in seven Americans live in poverty, over 51 million lack health insurance. To make matters worse, the U.S has the highest inequality of wealth in the Industrialized world.   Despair, disposability, and unnecessary human suffering now engulf large swaths of the American people, often pushing them into situations that are not merely tragic but life threatening. A survival of the fittest ethic has replaced any reasonable notion of solidarity, social responsibility, and compassion for the other.  Ideology does not seem to matter any longer as right-wing Republicans have less interest in argument and persuasion than in bullying their alleged enemies with the use of heavy handed legislation and when necessary dire threats, as when Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker threatened to mobilize the National Guard to prevent teachers unions from protesting their possible loss of bargaining rights and a host of anti-worker proposals.  More recently, the Republican Party held the nation hostage by refusing the raise the debt limit until crucial social protections and entitlement programs were cut. This is the face of casino capitalism and the culture of cruelty it imposes both in the United States and across the globe.

With any viable leadership lacking at the national level, young people and workers are both watching the movements for democracy that are taking place all over the globe, but especially in the volatile Arab nations and Western Europe. Struggles abroad give Americans a glimpse of what happens when individual solutions to collective problems lose their legitimacy as a central tenet of neoliberal ideology. Massive demonstrations, pitched street battles, non-violent gatherings, the impressive use of the new media as an alternative political and educational tool, and an outburst of long repressed anger eager for collective action are engulfing many countries across the globe.

Youth in London and other English cities are caught in an outburst of revolt fueled by longstanding economic and racial injustices. Reared in a consumer culture in which buying goods is the ultimate measure of human worth, they are looting stores and burning buildings as they partly mimic the feral capitalism that has left them with little hope and an underdeveloped sense of critical agency and collective struggle. The corporate state responds by calling them criminals, just as they have relied more and more on the punishing state to fill the void in the midst of strict austerity measures. Social problems are now individualized and criminalized.  In smaller numbers, such protests are also taking place in a number of cities around the United States. Many Americans are once again invoking democracy, rejecting its association with empty formalities and as a legitimating discourse to justify political systems that produce massive forms of wealth and income inequality.

Democracy’s promises are laying bare the sordid realities that now speak in its name. Its energy is becoming infectious and one can only hope that those who believe that education is the foundation of critical agency, politics, and democracy itself will be drawn to the task of fighting America’s move in the last thirty years to a politically and economically authoritarian system. At stake here is the need for a new vocabulary, vision, and politics that will unleash a new democratic vision capable of imagining a life and society free of the dictates of endless military wars, boundless material waste, extreme inequality, disposable populations, and unfounded human suffering. As I have argued in my newest book, Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Unions, and Public Education,  that no change will come unless education both within and outside of formal schooling is viewed as central to any viable notion of politics. That is, if real reform is going to happen, it has to put in place  those public spheres capable of producing a sustainable, critical, formative culture that supports notions of engaged citizenship, civic courage, public values, democratic modes of governing, and a genuine belief in freedom, equality, and justice. I am specifically arguing that both schooling and the educational force of the wider culture, what C. Wright Mills called the cultural apparatus, must be viewed as central to shaping the needs, subjectivities, identities, social relations, and world views of individuals .  

Within the current historical moment, the new digital media have become a both a new mode of communication and entertainment as well as a form of public pedagogy and political tool. Pedagogy is now public and permeates the entire cultural and social spheres of society. Whoever controls these spheres goes a long way towards controlling society. Young people more than ever understand this and are waging war against official knowledge and power through modes of public pedagogy and digital technologies that are difficult to control within traditional modes of power.  Social movements, demonstrations, and new modes of resistance are rising up in England, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, the United States, France, and a host of other countries struggle to beat back the ravages of casino capitalism and political authoritarianism.  Ideas matter as do the human beings and institutions that make them count and that includes those intellectuals both in and out of schools who bear the responsibility to provide the conditions for the American and British public of all ages to be able to think critically so they can act imaginatively–so they can embrace a vision of the good life as a just life, one that extends the values, practices, and visions of democracy to everyone.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. He has published numerous books, including Take Back Higher Educationco-authored with Susan Giroux.