Henry Giroux on Resisting the Neoliberal Revolution

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Credit: Dale Robbins
The notion of the “Deep State” as outlined by Mike Lofgren may be useful in pointing to a new configuration of power in the US in which corporate sovereignty replaces political sovereignty, but it is not enough to simply expose the hidden institutions and structures of power.

What we have in the US today is fundamentally a new mode of politics, one wedded to a notion of “power unaccompanied by accountability of any kind,” and this poses a deep and dire threat to democracy itself, because such power is difficult to understand, analyze and counter.

The biggest problem facing the US may not be its repressive institutions, modes of governance and the militarization of everyday life, but the interiority of neoliberal nihilism, the hatred of democratic relations and the embrace of a culture of cruelty.

I would suggest that what needs to be addressed is some sense of how this unique authoritarian conjuncture of power and politics came into place. More specifically, there is no mention by Lofgren of the collapse of the social state that began in the 1970s with the rise of neoliberal capitalism, a far more dangerous form of market fundamentalism than we had seen in the first Gilded Age. Nor is there a sustained analysis of what is new about this ideology.

How, for instance, are the wars abroad related increasingly to the diverse forms of domestic terrorism that have emerged at home? What is new and distinctive about a society marked by militaristic violence, exemplified by its war on youth, women, gays, public values, public education and any viable exhibition of dissent? Why at this particular moment in history is an aggressive war being waged on not only whistle blowers, but also journalists, students, artists, intellectuals and the institutions that support them?

What’s missing in Lofgren’s essay is any reference to the rise of the punishing state with its massive racially inflected incarceration system, which amounts to a war on poor minorities, especially black youth. Nor is anything said about the culture of fear that now rules American life and how it functions to redefine the notion of security, diverting it away from social considerations to narrow matters of personal safety.

An Occupy Los Angeles protester holds a sign as he walks down the steps during a rally in Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Moreover, Lofgren needs to say more about a growing culture of cruelty brought about by the death of concessions in politics — a politics now governed by the ultra-rich and mega corporations that has no allegiance to local politics and produces a culture infused with a self-righteous coldness that takes delight in the suffering of others. Power is now separated from politics and floats, unchecked and uncaring.

This is a revolution in which the welfare state is being liquidated, along with the collective provisions that supported it. It is a revolution in which economics drives politics.
Neoliberalism is a new form of hybrid global financial authoritarianism. It is connected to the Deep State and marked by its savage willingness in the name of accumulation, privatization, deregulation, dispossession and power to make disposable a wide range of groups extending from low income youth and poor minorities to elements of the middle class that have lost jobs, social protections and hope.

Then, there is the central question, how does the Deep State function to encourage particular types of individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behavior in its citizens?

The biggest problem facing the US may not be its repressive institutions, modes of governance and the militarization of everyday life, but the interiority of neoliberal nihilism, the hatred of democratic relations and the embrace of a culture of cruelty. The role of culture as an educative force, a new and powerful force in politics is central here and is vastly underplayed in the essay (which of course cannot include everything). For instance, in what ways does the Deep State use the major cultural apparatuses to convince people that there is no alternative to existing relations of power, that consumerism is the ultimate mark of citizenship and that making money is the essence of individual and social responsibility?

In other words, there is no theory of cultural domination here, no understanding of how identities, subjectivities and values are shaped in the narrow and selfish image of commerce, how exchange values are the only values. In my estimation, the Deep State is symptomatic of something more ominous, the rise of a new form of authoritarianism, a counter-revolution in which society is being restructured and advanced under what might be called the neoliberal revolution. This is a revolution in which the welfare state is being liquidated, along with the collective provisions that supported it. It is a revolution in which economics drives politics.

Regarding the question of resistance, I think this is the weakest part of the essay. I don’t believe the system is broken. I think it works well, but in the interest of very privileged and powerful elite economic and political interests that are aggressively waging a war on democracy itself. If there is to be any challenge to this system, it cannot be made within the discourse of liberal reform, which has largely served to maintain the system. Occupy and many other social movements recognize this. These groups have refused to be defined by the dominant media, the dictates of the security state, the financialization of everyday life and forms of representations that are utterly corrupt.

Hope and resistance will only come when the call for reform and working within the system gives way to imagining a very different understanding of what democracy means. The new authoritarianism with its diverse tentacles is the antithesis of democracy, and if we are going to change what Lofgren calls the Deep State, it is necessary to think in terms of an alternative that does not mimic its ideologies, institutions, governing structures and power relations.

Watch: Henry Giroux on Zombie Politics
Two things are essential for challenging the new authoritarianism. First, there needs to be a change in collective consciousness about what democracy really means and what it might look like. This is a pedagogical task whose aim is to create the formative culture that produces the agents necessary for challenging neoliberal rule. Secondly, there is a need for a massive social movement with distinct strategies, organizations and the will to address the roots of the problem and imagine a very different kind of society, one that requires genuine democratic socialism as its aim. Democracy is on life support in the US and working within the system to change it is a dead end, except for gaining short-term reforms. The struggle for a substantive democracy needs more, and the American people expect more.

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is a distinguished visiting scholar at Ryerson University, both in Canada. He is the author of dozens of books and his website is HenryGiroux.com.
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  • aurium lupi

    I am by no means conversant with the variegated threads making up the current discourse on the impending end of democracy as we wistfully had it up until about 1980. I read both the impelling document and this response by Giroux and come away with an impending sense of doom. There are too many factions and factors competing for attention to this underlying problem. Thom Hartmann points out that one of the factors is the Great Forgetfulness which results in 80-year cycles of untrammeled deregulation followed by several years or decades of crash and economic travail (see “Screwed” and “The Crash of 2016″). All of them are, however, instituted by and regulated for the elite oligarchy which has now become, as he terms them, the Economic Royalists. They are the Colossus of America, straddling the gulf between the have and the have-nots on the legs of money and bought-for, craven politicians in Washington.

  • Anonymous

    The pathologies the author describes represent the ultimate in “Me Only” mind set from individuals up to business enterprises at the global level. I really do not understand the “neoliberal” label.

    There is nothing liberal about this nihilistic world view, and do what you want when you want with no regard for anyone except yourself. Even Friedman was clear that maximizing profits was constrained by laws and societal ethical norms. Competition fair & open is conducted without fraud or deceit.

    The current brand of republican where the least advantaged among us is obligated to be fair and responsible; and those with the most are free to inflict damage wherever with out accountability or guilt.

    Sick, sick & sick.

  • Anonymous

    It is a mystery to me how a party can, as a matter of political policy, believe that it is okay to knowingly inflict damage or death on neighbors just to make a little more money. Duke Power with their ash pits, same for TVA contaminating the water their neighbors drink, fish in, etc when there is a solution. Worse the regulator colludes – for what reason, keeping their job, getting a future job for themselves or family.

    Real companies would campaign for resources (or use their own) to see what of value can be extracted from the waste. They would seek technologies to reduce volume, solidify or find a productive use like bricks.

    Instead they resist, wield power to resist, collude with legislators to defeat tighter regulations, etc.

  • Islene Runningdeer

    Anything that becomes too big, too powerful, too full of itself, becomes totally out of balance and falls. It hasn’t taken long for the U.S. of A. to bloat itself on self-importance and world power. It’s time for it to fall. Just another ill-fated empire. I’m looking forward to rebuilding something very different, if I’m around long enough to be part of it.

  • Anonymous

    As an educator, I feel great unease over the changes to public school education in the past 25 years. With the dictates from above to teachers to test, teach “The Core”, give more tests, record scores and compete for the highest scores, i must ask what are we teaching our children–what are we telling them? I am troubled when there is no time for the philosophical in the classroom, yes, philosophy–where we ask our children look at the world inside and around them, to ask questions, investigate, create alone or together–finally to accept that there are more questions than answers, and that failure is not bad, but an acceptable form of learning. We brag about the U.S. schools being competitive, becoming wired with technology, but in fact, what kind of learning are children actually doing?
    Our school superintendent has informed us that there will be staffing cuts and increased class sizes (25-30 kindergarteners in one class already); I sometimes wonder if the money has been misspent in the service of standardized testing. We in education wonder if the administration reveres the “Common Core” and Standardized Testing as “God”, just as the business and consumer worships the “Market” and “Consumerism”.
    Still, I would like to know Mr. Giroux’s views on the role played by public, private, and privatized charter schools in the unraveling of democracy; also how have you seen corporations influence governmental guidelines for the common core teaching and standardized testing in the unraveling of democracy. Finally, what can we as educators do to strengthen our democracy.

  • http://tanglesandwebs.blogspot.com/ Annie Stratton

    I am also baffled by the use of the term “neo-liberal” to label these issues.. I read a lot, and listen a lot, and this label seemed to crop up almost overnight. Perhaps somebody needed to use a word that seemed to point a finger, came up with “neo-liberal” and others grabbed onto it without thinking of what it means or implies. Maybe someone else (preferably a lexicographer) could write a piece to illuminate just how that came about.

    I am also not sure that the seeds for this are new at all. Democracy in our country has always been a work in progress, with many falterings and not a few pratfalls. That it is now in real danger I don’t doubt. As another post alluded to, all empires eventually get beyond their ability to manage themselves, and fail. And like most, it will not be a quick fall, but a gradual erosion likely to take several generations, if not centuries. I am not as pessimistic as some, because I see the concurrent development of cultural institutions that will ultimately replace the dying empire. It is not inevitable that the new ways will be either worse or better than what they replace, and many of them may be (and probably are) already part of the existing structures and will morph with time. But, by golly, we’d better pay attention, because either way, there is likely to be ugliness and uncertainty. This is not a spectator sport.

  • http://revolutionarysharing.com/ Bullhorn Journal

    The Authoritarian elite are girded by the banal bureaucrats and functionaries, the nuts and bolts of the Deep State, the technically educated, uncritical semi-achievers.

    When The Ukranian President fled and his opulent palace was discovered, everyone asked, ‘where did the President go?’ But they should be asking, ‘who was the gardener?’

  • http://revolutionarysharing.com/ Bullhorn Journal

    Giroux is correct in saying that we must work and educate and dig into the maddening business of actual democracy. However, and Giroux likely knows this, another brace holding up the Deep State is the theft of time and energy by the neo-liberal economic model. We are not just demoralized, we are exhausted.

  • willieearlhart

    Neoliberalism, though used earlier, as thought of today comes from Milton Friedman and “The Chicago Boys” and the Chicago school of economics. I highly recommend Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” (2007) as an excellent primer on the subject.

  • Anonymous

    The first order of business will have to be to remove money from politics in some public rules fashion. If this doesn’t occur, the 200 year experiment in American democracy is over.

  • Dr Feelbad

    The thing is, money in politics takes many forms. We need to publicly finance all elections, but between the revolving door and the wealth that is showered on those who’ve done the bidding of the .01% while in office, not to mention the wholesale intellectual takeover of our educational institutions by neoliberal philosophy and attitudes, there are many fronts to this fight against money in politics.

  • Dr Feelbad

    The term neoliberal refers to the economic philosophy of total deregulation and freeing of money and markets from government control, placing money at the forefront of all human endeavor, and treating any other consideration as, at best, secondary. The term is made up of neo, meaning new, and liberal, which in the economic sphere refers to liberalization of markets and trade, liberal equating with free, or unfettered. Its the new economic liberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, which accompanied our last gilded age. What we had in between was the social welfare state, which despite its many flaws, saw the growth of a massive safety net and protections and rights for the average person unprecedented in the history of the world.

    Obama is an unrepentant neoliberal. He just loves criminal, predatory finance and “free trade” agreements that aren’t about freedom and aren’t even about trade, but instead are about cementing control of certain economic sectors by granting, extending and placing power in the hands of massive international corporations. Extending patents, copyright and other government granted anti-free market rights and allowing corporations to battle regulation in secret arbitration courts instead of national courts. This is the essence of the two “trade” agreements Obama is intent on passing before he leaves office. The democratic party used to be the party of the people, but between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama that legacy is dead.

    What amazes me is that these guys actually convince themselves that the policies they push are in the best interest of the nation. But then again, no one ever lost out overestimating the intelligence and character of politicians.

  • Anonymous

    That surprises me because Friedman was clear the profits were the motive consistent with laws and ethical standards of society. Open and free competition free from fraud or deception. The laws and societal ethical standards provide the bounding conditions to ensure free & open and to check fraud and deception.

    Completely unfettered was never his theme anymore than it was for Adam.Smith.

  • Anonymous

    I agree or maybe nihilist anarchic.

  • http://guilt-project.org/forgiveness.html Roman Latkovic

    What is missing in all these discussions is a need for time term. Ponder this:

    Patrick J. Leahy (Senate, D-VT), in the office, ’til today, for 38 years, 2 months, 12 days;
    Orrin Hatch (Senate, R-UT), in the office, ’til today, 36 years, 2 months, 12 days or these guys:
    John Conyers (House, D), in the office, ’til today, 49 years, 51 days (!!) or, even better, John Dingell, also House D, in the office for FIFTY EIGHT (58) years!!!!

    And this is just a sample. It seems more like a monarchy than democracy to me…

  • GregoryC

    Non-partisan, citizen drawing of congressional districts removing gerrymandering.

  • GregoryC

    End the revolving door — since the elite don’t have the integrity or ethics not to sell out for post-government riches, maybe we need to impose a period of x-number of years between government “service” and industry.

  • nony mouse

    then we need to be forming communities of mutual support so that either we do not have to work all of the time to afford the basic necessities of life, or so that their cost is reduced, or so that we can replace ‘goods’ in many areas (convenience) with services, which serves both of the above functions. and, necessary to doing that we need to establish clear communication, social rules and standards, and regain the trust that has been lost as people have been able to insulate themselves behind the walls of their homes from each other in order to not be impacted by the actions of each other. ultimately, we have to realize and reject the entire trend of where our society has been headed for 40 or more years, relearn how to trust more, relearn how to actually BE a community, relearn how to do for each other rather than buy something to solve most of our problems, relearn how to do this so that certain individuals do not always have to be the ‘givers’ and ‘doers’ and feel taken advantage of, and so that everyone can have their basic needs met in order to devote the time to learning about the issues that one COMES TO the political table in order to determine the proper course of action for benefit of all. it’s rebuilding a society that is being deliberately eaten away on one side, and falling apart on the other.

  • http://revolutionarysharing.com/ Bullhorn Journal


  • Anonymous

    To add another “thread” to this conversation, let us not forget “The Crisis of Democracy” the 1975 “report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission. re: american democracy p. 115 – internal threat not from either the right or the left … but from “highly educated, moblilized and participant society” … In the next chapter it states … “We have come to recognize that there are potentially desirable limits to economic growth (remember this is for D. Rockefeller’s Trilateral Commission!). There are also potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.” and then we begin to get cuts to public everything in particularly public schooling; the introduction of “standardized” tests and of course … teaching to the tests. Out the window went good critical education that focuses on the student and meets them wherever it is they are … because a critically educated population is required for an authentic participatory democracy … and that was not desired by our ruling elite … so they put in place the measures to curb democracy while proclaiming to be promoting freedom and democracy. A piece of this are attack ads which just turn off people … we have our work cut out for us … and it is do-able in a short period of time. Forming supportive communities and having fun while we do it essential. y

  • Anonymous

    So, I sometimes ask when reading work like this, does this mean that somehow we as citizens must become better citizens than we are now? If so, what should I personally be doing in future that I’m not doing now?

    And which of the things I’m doing now; reading articles like this, spending time with family and friends, getting my exercise, working and resting, should I do less of?

  • whateverdude

    I guess you have not considered the source of political power adequately. A majority of coercive political power comes out of the barrel of a gun, not from “extreme wealth”.

  • Anonymous

    Guess I don’t need to write much Tom, you did a great job. The trouble with Henry’s argument is that it is just another partisan political argument from the left. I am sure there are many on the right that could come up with their own argument. One of Lofgren’s main points is that the right-left dichotomy is a smoke screen. Same old Welfare/Warefare supporters.

  • M. Blaisdale

    I believe the concept of the Deep State derives more from the work of Peter Dale Scott, who has outlined the way in which the military-intelligence apparat mated with the financial establishment and squirted out a monstrous baby that is our new ruling elite. Bill should have a round table with Peter Dale Scott, Henry Giroux, Corey Robin and Joseph Tainter. I think we’d Seda 40% uptick in the suicide rate after that episode aired.

  • Anonymous

    It is a slow process, we are moving towards the right direction. We need to keep reminding ourselves and others to work towards equality not only in education but in all aspects of our system. This is how it improves and moves toward reform. Slow true, patient and steadfast we must remain. Giroux gives us much needed hope by continuously challenging the status quo.