COMMENTARY

Right-wing authoritarianism is winning — but higher education is where we can fight back

At its best, higher education produces engaged, critical thinkers — who are crucial in the fight against fascism

By Henry A. Giroux

Published December 18, 2021 12:00PM (EST)

A man holding an automatic rifle poses in front of a 3% flag which is a far-right anti-government militia movement. The Rod of Iron Freedom Festival is an anti-government, Christian far-right movement that held a 3 day 2nd Amendment Rally of Freedom, Faith and Family. A few far right politicians were in attendance and the event featured a speech from HJ Sean Moon, the founder of the World Peace and Unification Church in Pennsylvania, who often wears a crown made of bullets. Members take marriage vows to their AR-15 rifles and have blessings for their guns. Many in attendance were seen carrying guns. (Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A man holding an automatic rifle poses in front of a 3% flag which is a far-right anti-government militia movement. The Rod of Iron Freedom Festival is an anti-government, Christian far-right movement that held a 3 day 2nd Amendment Rally of Freedom, Faith and Family. A few far right politicians were in attendance and the event featured a speech from HJ Sean Moon, the founder of the World Peace and Unification Church in Pennsylvania, who often wears a crown made of bullets. Members take marriage vows to their AR-15 rifles and have blessings for their guns. Many in attendance were seen carrying guns. (Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at CounterPunch. Used by permission.

The future of democracy in the United States will not be determined by the malignant decisions made by a reactionary group of Supreme Court justices. Nor will it be decided by the existence of voter suppression laws, the ubiquity of the Big Lie, massive structural inequality or the rise of white nationalism to the centers of power and a politics dominated by white supremacist ideology. Nor will it be decided by the rhetorical accelerant endlessly produced by Donald Trump, with his frequent allusions to violence and armed revolt.

It will be decided by the increasing collapse of conscience, the undermining of truth and a mass consciousness that supports violence as a central weapon for social change. To the degree that the public can be convinced, as Judith Butler argues, that the "call for democracy is interpreted as sedition [and] the call for freedom is taken to be a call to violence," democracy will suffer from a legitimation crisis and will disintegrate. Under such circumstances, it will be easier for the abyss of fascist politics to gain more legitimacy and prevail in the United States.

Violence in the United States has gone into overdrive. Building on a history of disposability, genocide and militarism, it increasingly has gained support, particularly among the Republican Party, as a potentially justifiable path to power. How else to explain the shocking defense by most Republicans of the insurrection against the Capitol on Jan. 6 as "a patriotic attempt to protect the nation against its enemies"? How do reason and justice prevail in a society when the legal justification given to macho-infused vigilantes in the aftermath of the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal provides them with a pass to shoot, if not kill, peaceful protesters? How else to clarify the rise of deadly misogynist violence, operating under the discourse of surveillance and vigilantism, that has moved from Texas to the law of the land, subjecting women to an incriminating reality that dictates that they are second-class citizens who can no longer have control over their reproductive rights? How else to address the rise of a gun culture that trades on fear to immunize people to the tsunami of mass shootings, suffering and death that appears as an everyday experience in the United States?

RELATED: White terror: Millions of Americans say they'd support violence to restore Trump to power

How does one explain crazed images of guns being celebrated in the social media by Republicans, as if the spectacle of violence does not present a danger to a larger public? In one telling instance, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky "posted a Christmas picture of himself and what appears to be his family, smiling and posing with an assortment of guns, just days after four teenagers were killed in a shooting at a high school in Michigan." Accompanying the image was the tweet "Merry Christmas! ps. Santa, please bring ammo."

The image is more than insensitive, it endorses a hyped-up version of gun culture while maximizing the pleasure potentially produced by an obsession with guns and the threat of violence (after all, it was intended as a virtual Christmas card). What Massie mimics in this Christmas family photo is an echo of the cruelty and pornographic fascination and celebration of the spectacle of violence central to a fascist politics. This merging of pleasure, moral irresponsibility and cruelty offers legitimation for the horror of violent acts, including the threat of violence as a political weapon. The image is symptomatic of a moral and political depravity that defines the Republican Party and its obsession with violence, fear and death.

With the rise in hate speech, right-wing extremist violence, gerrymandering, voter suppression, police violence and staggering economic, health and educational disparities, UN special rapporteur Fernand de Varennes stated that "the United States is becoming a darker, nastier, and more divided society." It should come as no surprise that a number of organizations, from Freedom House to the European think tank International IDEA. report that democracy, at least what is left of it, is eroding in the United States.

Right-wing extremists have redefined the notion of freedom by detaching it from any sense of the common good and ethical considerations while reducing any vestige of liberty to an individual and utterly privatized right. Mimicking neoliberal values, freedom now flees inward, reduced to almost pathological self-centeredness that is increasingly hostile to the common good, matters of mutual support and social responsibility. Concerns for the public good, if not the social bonds that hold societies together, are undermined by an all-encompassing retreat into personal responsibility, which places the burden of change entirely on the individual. In this instance, freedom is privatized, hollowed out and emptied of any considerations for social costs. Evidence of this retreat from social responsibility is evident in the refusal on the part of many Trump supporters to get vaccinated against a deadly virus regardless of the suffering and death it causes to others. This position is now largely justified by extremists in the name of individual freedom and self-determination.

The language of violence has become normalized among a Republican Party that is indifferent to its fringe elements, who increasingly threaten the lives of politicians they disagree with. Moreover, it has become ensconced in the collective consciousness for a large segment of the public as a routine way to address social problems, drive political rhetoric and annihilate dissent and resistance. Violence now defines the very essence of politics and increasingly has become a routine element of everyday life. School shootings have become an everyday occurrence, further accelerated by Republican legislators who argue that anyone should be able to buy as many guns as they want, regardless of the danger gun violence poses to the public. As blood flows in the corridors of malls, schools, synagogues and houses of worship, right-wing Republicans talk more openly in violent terms, threatening their opponents with the use of force and mobilizing their followers with a call for armed confrontation.

Unsurprisingly, one revealing and increasingly symptomatic incident took place in October at a conservative rally in western Idaho. A young man stepped up to a microphone and asked, "When do we get to use the guns" to start killing Democrats? The audience applauded. He then asked, "How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?"  Lisa Lerer and Astead Herndon of the New York Times reported that "the local state representative, a Republican, later called it a 'fair' question." The racist spirit of the Ku Klux Klan and a politics of racial cleansing have merged with the unchecked greed and systemic violence of a Second Gilded Age to create an updated fascist politics that now drives the Republican Party.

As white supremacy moves from the fringes of politics to the centers of economic, political and social power, the boundaries of those considered disposable and unknowable widens through escalating police violence, voter suppression laws and the ever-increasing poison spread by right-wing social media. Views critical of racism, the attack on academic freedom or the lies of those who thrive on denouncing reason and science are dismissed as fake news, while those journalists, school board members, politicians and educators who oppose a rising fascist politics are subject to insults, threats and violence. In addition, the Republican Party's drive to ensure minority rule is working overtime to gut labour rights, destroy the environment, subvert majority rule, roll back the protections for LGBTQ people, women, people of color, young people and others who have benefited from civil rights gains that have been won through generations of struggle.

RELATED: Can American democracy escape the doom loop? So far, the signs are not promising

The Republican war against reason, critical education and thinking itself is working. Violence is increasingly accepted by many people in the United States as a solution to addressing political problems. The language of militarism and violence dominates much of right-wing social media and its pedagogical reach keeps growing. For instance, the rising threat of extremism is evident in the growing culture of racism nurtured by the Republican Party and its acolytes. Anthony DiMaggio's analysis of the Republican Party's alignment with white supremacist views is eye-opening and worth quoting at length: 

[E]ight in ten Republicans feel that "America is in danger of losing its culture and identity," and nearly as many Republicans (79 percent) agreeing that "the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence." Conceptions of American identity clearly overlap strongly with white supremacy, with 51 percent of Republicans agreeing that "America must protect and preserve its white European heritage," and an equal number saying "a culture established by the country's early European immigrants" is "important" "to the United States identity as a nation." … Nearly two-thirds of Republicans base their commitment to protecting American identity on reactionary religious values, with 63 percent saying that one must be Christian to be "truly American."

The Jan. 6 insurrection was one stage in the evolution of a politics that now enshrines violence as a potential path to power. Racial terror and a clarion call to violence dominate American politics, amplified by a mainstream press that refuses to name it as a form of fascist politics, and a right-wing media that revels in a spectacularized culture of threats and violence. Aaron Blake, writing in the Washington Post, states that "not only do 31 percent of American adults … believe the election was stolen [they] also sympathize with the statement that 'because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.'" 

Citing an American Enterprise Institute poll, DiMaggio states that more than 39 percent of Republicans agree that "if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions."

The landscape of violence no longer hides in the dark or on the fringes of politics, as was obvious with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In addition, there are the many instances of violence emerging in the last few years from the politicians loyal to Trump along with many of his followers. Some of the more visible and threatened acts of violence include Rep. Paul Gosar's cartoon depiction of "killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and swinging swords at Biden." There is also Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's claim that the only way to get freedom back is "with the price of blood." 

RELATED: Paul Gosar's death-threat video is no joke — it's part of the Republican terror strategy

Greene's call to violence became more specific in a video in which she endorsed "calls to execute FBI agents deemed disloyal to President Donald Trump and to target top Democrats, including 'a bullet to the head' for Speaker Nancy Pelosi." More recently, former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, who now sees himself as a spokesperson for a fundamentalist religious army, advocates a right-wing Christian takeover of America with his call for "one nation under God and one religion under God." Flynn is simply symptomatic of the theocratic war being waged by right-wing radical Christian extremists against both democracy and Christianity. This unholy alliance between Christian extremists and fascism is now a fundamental force in the Republican Party and its theocratic wing is as dangerous as its motley group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and militia movements.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the Republican Party, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have refused to censure these calls to violence, giving credence to Greene's claim that "We Conservatives [in the House of Representatives] aren't the fringe. We actually represent the base of Republican voters, which is approximately 70%. And when the party learns to represent Conservative Americans, we will never lose again."

Jonathan Freedland is right in stating that Greene and "Gosar are in lockstep with a Republican Party whose face can be seen in the death threats now routinely meted out … to nationally famous politicians such as AOC" and others. The threats of violence on the part of the Republican Party and a large majority of its supporters are only one register of its drift toward authoritarianism. A more significant concern is how such violence works in tandem with a range of cultural apparatuses to legitimize the use of such violence as part of the drive to destroy democracy and instill an authoritarian government.

The threat of murderous violence is not restricted to Trump's unhinged political flunkies. Such threats also inhabit the daily world of micro-aggressions aimed at destroying the day-to-day social relations that enable people to gain some control over their lives. We live in the age of Trump-inspired raging mobs. Heather Cox Richardson makes some of these micro-assaults visible in her claim that violent gangs are becoming a central political force in America. She is worth quoting at length.

Since January 6, angry mobs have driven election officials out of office in fear for their safety. In increasingly angry protests, they have threatened school board members over transgender rights and over teaching Critical Race Theory, a legal theory from the 1970s that is not, in fact, in the general K–12 curriculum. Now, as the coronavirus rages again, they are showing exactly how this process works as they threaten local officials who are following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require masks. Although a Morning Consult poll shows that 69% of Americans want a return to mask mandates, vocal mobs who oppose masking are dominating public spaces and forcing officials to give in to their demands. In Franklin, Tennessee … anti-mask mobs threatened doctors and nurses asking the local school board to reinstate a mask mandate in the schools. "We will find you," they shouted at a man leaving the meeting. "We know who you are."

As Brad Evans, one of our most astute theoreticians of violence, has made clear, the long legacy of violence espoused by Trump and his acolytes constitute not simply the development of slow violence at work in emptying politics of its democratic values, but the degree to which violence has become routinized and politics turned into a machinery of fear, terror and death. War, militarism and violence now dominate the public imagination in the United States. Underlying the diverse attempts of right-wing Republicans to destroy public education, overturn election results, subvert abortion rights and produce malign forms of lawlessness in different forms of disenfranchisement is a long-term goal of destroying any vestige of democracy and the public institutions that support it. There is more at work here than the debasement of politics, there is also a systemic struggle to undermine the public imagination and create the conditions for the wider public to internalize the need for violence as a form of habitual domination.

What ties all these incidents of violence together — whether it be an attack on dissent, women's abortion rights, voting rights or social justice — is both a limited understanding of the theories and practice of freedom and the growing repressive educational forces that serve to depoliticize people. In this case, the forces of authoritarianism are deepened and extended throughout American society through an image-based culture of manufactured ignorance and an overcharged cult of lies produced both in right-wing cultural apparatuses, toxic social media spheres and current attacks on public and higher education. At the heart of this emerging rebranded fascism is a politics deeply at work in the struggle over consciousness, identity, subjectivity, values and agency. As Paul Street observes, "Public knowledge is a matter of life and death," particularly when it is conditioned to offer little resistance to "the political hurricane of white nationalist authoritarianism — fascism, American-style — [that] is bearing down on the United States today."

RELATED: Republicans' war on education is the most crucial part of their push for fascism

The merging of historical amnesia, manufactured ignorance and a culture of fear and violence have become a major pedagogical force in American politics and culture. Yet this ongoing struggle over consciousness waged by proto-fascists through diverse forms of political and popular education in a variety of cultural sites is largely underplayed or ignored as a dangerous force in American society. This misunderstanding and theoretical failure is particularly true among liberal and left-oriented critics, except for a few public intellectuals such as Angela Davis, Robin D.G. Kelley, Noam Chomsky, Paul Street, Tony DiMaggio, Jeffrey St. Clair and some other journalists and public intellectuals. There is little sense among too many educators, cultural workers, protesters and anti-capitalist and anti-racist groups that politics is educative.

What I am suggesting is that there is little hope for social change unless people can be persuaded to invest in a politics in which they can recognize themselves and their problems, and can develop a moment of recognition and broader understanding of resistance, politics and collective struggle. Of course the Black Lives Matter movement and other anti-racist and social justice advocates are trying to change our understanding of the crucial relationship between education and politics, but their voices are under-emphasized, and they are largely muted by the dominant right-wing media from reaching large segments of the American public.

It is not enough for those of us struggling for a radical democracy to be horrified over the workings of the Trump Supreme Court, the fascist politics being implemented by right-wing state legislators, the normalization of white supremacist ideology, the expanding forms of domestic terrorism and the ever-present culture of cruelty and violence that has enveloped in the United States. If people cannot escape from the ideological terror machinery of culture that convinces them that all their problems are a matter of individual responsibility, that matters of class, racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression are not systemic, and that the privatization of everything should not be viewed as a powerful form of depoliticization, the United States will soon move to a full-fledged, rebranded fascist social order. There is no genuine democracy, collective move for resistance and expanding defense of public goods without genuine opposing critical power, and that power at its core is educational.

The failure of progressives to recognize this is evident in too many short-sighted treatments of the Republican Party's attack on "critical race theory." This is not simply an attack on history as dangerous memory, dissent, academic freedom and racial injustice. This is a much broader attack on the very institutions that produce engaged citizens, critical agency and critical thought itself. It is a full-fledged attack on both the democratizing purpose of education and the institutions that support its democratic possibilities. Under the narrow rubric of an attack on critical race theory, what we are witnessing is a wider attack on the ability to link moral authority with intellectual competencies that extend from learning history and learning civic virtue to critically engaging the most malign threats to democracy and social and economic justice. This is even more reason to take seriously the attack on education in the specific and broader sense as one of the main sites of struggle over consciousness, power, identity, agency, politics and the ability to define and struggle for a socialist future.


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The war against the culture of critique, accountability, dissent, reason, justice and critical agency has moved into full throttle with the current attacks on language and meaning. In the current era of authoritarianism, meaning as a form of truth-telling is stripped out of language. Truth is no longer discernible from lies, and terrorism takes the form of eliminating the thinking subject, the common good and all forms of meaningful solidarity. In other words, among the casualties of authoritarianism are the minds that oppose it. Under such circumstances, the current attacks on critical race theory become codes for attacking all institutions where students and others might realize themselves as critical citizens. Judd Legum provides a telling instance of the latter in his critical analyses of how right-wing extremists are waging war against public education in Tennessee.

The attacks on issues dealing with racism and social justice are being conducted through both repressive pedagogical practices and threats to ban instructional material that includes concepts such as "privilege," "discomfort" and other terms that reinsure that the language of erasure works to miseducate students while imposing a form of historical amnesia. This is a form of violence that cripples language, elevates stupidity over informed reason and disregards the truth to promote lies and conspiracy theories. It is a form of violence, a machinery of annihilation, that connects the power of corporate wealth and religious fanaticism to a politics of racial cleansing and the degradation of civic literacy, civic courage and civic culture.

Legum makes this clear in his report that the dark money-funded group Moms for Liberty is waging a war of censorship against any book that includes social justice issues and has gone so far as to object to such books as "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington." One criticism of the book made by Moms for Liberty was that it displayed "photographs of white firemen blasting black children to the point of 'bruising their bodies and ripping off their clothes.'" Legum also points out that the group "objected to the teacher's manual accompanying the book because it had a negative depiction of Bull Connor, the notorious racist who used hoses and attack dogs to enforce segregation."

It is worth noting that Robin Steenman, head of the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty once stated on her Twitter account that she would never send her kids to a public school and referred to public school teachers as "brainwashing assholes." It gets worse. The Moms for Liberty movement not only engages in a whitewashing of history for public school children, it also attempts to impose its own white supremacist version of history. For example, their website recommends that students learn about American history through the lens of "The Making of America," a book published in 1985 by W. Cleon Skousen. According to Legum:

Skousen was a supporter of The John Birch Society, a far-right organization that opposed the civil rights movement…. Skousen's book characterizes "black children as 'pickaninnies' and American slave owners as the 'worst victims' of slavery." The book claims that the Founders wished to free the slaves but "[m]ost of [the slaves] were woefully unprepared for a life of competitive independence." Skousen asserts that abolitionists "did much to perpetuate slavery" by taking a "too militant" approach.

This reactionary white-supremacist pedagogy must be challenged through forms of schooling and popular education that do more than promote an anti-racist consciousness; it must also be addressed by first recognizing that underlying this fascist politics is a crisis of consciousness. That, as Angela Davis points out, must be challenged through educational practices that adopt a critical stance in which people can "perceive their relationship to reality." At the heart of such a struggle is the question, what is the purpose of education? Put differently, what does it mean to address education in a time of tyranny? How might education become central to politics and take on the goal of educating students and the public to think critically and learn how to challenge the perpetrators of white supremacy and social violence?

I think it is best to begin with the question of what the role of education might be in the midst of a historical moment in which there is a growing alliance between corporate and political power and an updated fascist politics. One response is that education at its best should be defined as a public good — one that takes seriously the need to create critical, informed and engaged citizens. As such, it not only should provide the pedagogical conditions for students to be knowledgeable and critically appropriate the best of the Enlightenment and other traditions, but should also infuse the liberal arts, if not all elements of education, with a sense of social, ethical and public responsibility.

A radical politics cannot survive if it ignores the fact that public and higher education are one of the few spheres left in democratic societies where students and others can learn the knowledge and skills of democratic citizenship. Nor can it survive if it ignores that education takes place outside of schools in a massive ecosystem of cultural apparatuses. At the same time, it is not the job of education to confuse education with training, nor is its job only to educate students for the workforce or to impose a regime of repressive conformity on teachers and students and the wider public. Moreover, the job of education is not to build "human capital" and reduce the obligations of citizenship to the demands of consumerism, but to educate young people and others to address the most crucial problems of the day, extending from climate change and systemic racism to the threat of nuclear war.

In what follows, I want to focus on higher education, because it is one of the few places still left to offer a more protective space for critical pedagogy and learning, even though it has been under siege by right-wing conservatives since the end of the 1960s. Moreover, any talk of reforming higher education has relevance for how people learn and what they learn in a variety of sites and political and social contexts. The purpose of the university should be on the side of democracy, not increasing the bottom line, which is what drives higher education today under the regime of neoliberalism.

Higher education needs to build a bridge between faculty, citizens, students, administrators and the larger world. The broader public needs to understand the relevance of the university as an institution for the public good, rather than simply an adjunct of corporations, finance capital and military interests. In a time of incipient authoritarianism and an insurgency of white supremacy, it is especially important to raise the question of what public and higher education stand for or, as Paul Allen Miller argues, "where does the university stand [and] what does the university owe the truth?" In the current moment marked by the proliferation of conspiracy theories, a culture of lying and the assault on critical thought itself, Miller's question has enormous relevance for the entirety of institutions that shape American society.

RELATED: How higher education can win the war against neoliberalism and white supremacy

What Miller is suggesting is that the university should take on the noble task of aligning with truth, a task which must be matched by the practice of freedom and the infusing of learning with the spirit of civic culture, social justice and economic equity. The university should not only be a place to refuse and resist the forces of neoliberalism by revealing its anti-democratic ethos and toxic austerity politics; it should also make an appeal to truth in refusing to compromise with oppressive forms of power while at the same time exposing the financial and corporate interests at work in the larger society.

This suggests addressing the legacy and configuration of authoritarian and anti-democratic forces responsible for privatizing public services, eliminating public sector jobs, shipping jobs abroad, refusing to provide decent meaningful wages, curbing the power of trade unions, slashing retirement benefits, polluting rivers, poisoning drinking water with lead and promoting tax cuts for the ultra-rich. These issues are not limited to promoting the survival of higher education as a democratic sphere, but also address issues relevant for creating a more just, equitable and meaningful life for everyone. Unfortunately, these goals have been under attack as the university has succumbed to the dictates of neoliberalism, and more recently to attacks on faculty, dissent, control over curricula and attempts to turn higher education institutions into factories of bigotry, conformity and moral indifference.

As higher education has become more corporatized, it has been perceived less as a public good. Several significant changes have taken place that undermine the democratic role of higher education. All of these must be reversed. First, higher education has been radically defunded because its potential role in providing free or cheap access to wider populations is seen as a threat to far right foundations, conservative groups and reactionary think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. As a promising engine of democracy, higher education poses a threat to conservatives who have attacked it since the '60s. This is evident in massive increases in tuition, in tandem with the public defunding of the university, contributing to the ballooning of student debt while making education less accessible to working-class students, especially Black and brown students. In addition, faculty have been removed from any control of the nature of their labor and had their job security eliminated. In the U.S., two-thirds of faculty are now on short-term contracts, living in fear and in some cases poverty. This attack on the power of faculty to control the conditions of their labor is part of a much broader assault on unions that went into high gear with the rise of neoliberalism, especially under the reign of Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California campaigned against the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez, and when elected president fired 13,000 air traffic controllers in the summer of 1981, effectively destroying their union.

What must also be noted is that the governing structure of the university is not just top-heavy with administrators but is largely shaped by a form of managerialism modeled after business culture. The university has become more than a model of corporate governance; it has become a high-powered factory run by a clueless managerial class more interested in grants and bottom-line profits than in high-quality education for everyone. Neoliberal governing structures have turned destructive in their disregard for tenure, the rush for departmental mergers and their ongoing disregard for academic freedom — a longstanding inheritance of the Reagan and Thatcher period, when universities were increasingly defined through the lens of a business ideology and culture. 

Another attack on higher education takes place as corporate values replace academic values, knowledge is reduced to a commodity and any academic field or subject that does not translate into profit-making and instrumental rationality is viewed as unnecessary. In this logic, what is lost is educating young people for the social good or encouraging faculty to assume the role of public intellectuals. This would mean providing the financial and intellectual resources necessary, along with the encouragement, to enable faculty to relate their academic work to alleviating human suffering, reducing the wastefulness of corporate barbarism, directing crucial resources back to communities in need, and using their research to address the dangerous threat of climate changes. Those things does not appear to warrant any consideration. In fact, faculty tend increasingly to be punished for engaging in this type of work. Under the rule of neoliberal capitalism, students are now considered clients, the curricula are dumbed down and faculty have been deskilled, overburdened and stripped of their power.

All these issues must be challenged both by educators and those groups and social movements outside the university who recognize that education is a crucial force for a democracy to survive. But such resistance must not only take place among students, faculty and progressive administrators, it must also involve all those social movements who recognize that the same forces at work in destroying higher education are also undermining the viability of the welfare state, the environment, civil rights, struggles for economic equality and any institution that furthers equality and social justice.  

It is also crucial to acknowledge that education cannot be reduced to schooling in an image-based culture. It must be broadly understood as taking place in various locations and defined, in part, through its interrogation on the claims of democracy. As Ariel Dorfman has argued, it is time to produce cultural institutions and empowering pedagogical conditions in multiple places extending from the mainstream press to the online digital world in order "to unleash the courage, energy, joy and, yes, compassion with which rebellious millions [can] defy fear and keep hope alive in these traumatic times."

Such sites are important in the efforts to engage education as a political force. Pierre Bourdieu rightly observed that "important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical and lie on the side of belief and persuasion [making it even more] important to recognize that intellectuals bear an enormous responsibility for challenging this form of domination." This is an especially crucial demand at a time when the educational and pedagogical force of the culture works through and across multiple places. Schooling is only one site of education, while screen culture, television, books, podcasts, magazines, the internet, social media platforms and music venues are incredibly significant forces in shaping worldviews, modes of agency and diverse forms of identification.

At a time when truth has become malleable, and people are being told that the only obligation of citizenship is to consume, language has become thinner and more individualistic, detached from history and more self-oriented, all the while undermining viable democratic social spheres as spaces where politics brings people together as collective agents willing to push at the frontiers of the political and moral imagination. Too many people across the globe have forgotten their civic lessons, and in doing so, ceded the ground of history to the purveyors of lies, militarism and white supremacy. 

Terror comes in many forms, and one of its most powerful expressions is when people no longer have the words to either understand or challenge the world in which they live. Not only does such linguistic deprivation fail to ward off the plague of propaganda, but it also contributes "to an annihilation of the self and the destruction of the capacity to recognize the real world." 

If the university no longer engages in the search for truth, and matters of justice become irrelevant, the university can become what it was under the Nazis, an institution that placed "learning in service to a nationalist and militant culture, a mechanism for producing political legitimacy, ideological conformity, and economic value to be used and deployed by others." Such a lesson extends far beyond the boundaries of the university. As educators and intellectuals, it is crucial to remember that there is no genuine democracy without the presence of knowledgeable citizens willing to recognize and search for the truth, hold power accountable, engage in forms of moral witnessing, break the continuity of common sense and challenge the emergence of anti-democratic institutions, policies, ideas and social relations.

Making education fundamental to politics suggests that as academics, researchers and artists we ask uncomfortable questions about what Arundhati Roy called "our values and traditions, our vision for the future, our responsibilities as citizens, the legitimacy of our 'democratic institutions', the role of the state, the police, the army, the judiciary, and the intellectual community."

Once again, there is no democracy without an educated public, and there is no educated public without the support and existence of institutions that define education as a public good and a crucial public sphere. Educators, artists, intellectuals and other cultural workers have a moral and political responsibility to put into place those pedagogical sites and practices that enable the critical agents and social movements willing to refuse to equate capitalism and democracy and uphold the conviction that the problems of ecological destruction, mass poverty, militarism, systemic racism, staggering economic inequality and a host of other social problems cannot be solved by leaving capitalism in place. Both higher education and other spheres of education must do justice to democracy and the conditions that make it possible by writing the future in the language of struggle, hope, equality, compassion and the fundamental narratives of freedom and equality.

To be on the side of justice, educators must take seriously the notion that history is open and that it is necessary for people to think otherwise to act otherwise, especially if they take seriously that the role of higher education is to enable young people and others to be able to imagine and bring into being alternative democratic futures and horizons of possibility. This is a vision infused with a mix of justice, hope and struggle has never been more important than it is today. Moreover, in the face of the rise of right-wing movements across the globe, it is time to address the role of higher education in a time of tyranny. This suggests that it is time to heed the call to merge a sense of moral outrage with a sense of civic courage and collective action. It is crucial to take on the challenge of initiating a period of mass awakening while articulating and connecting moments of political recognition, critical consciousness and social awareness to mass struggles.

Progressives need an education revival based on the recognition, as Stanley Aronowitz insisted, that without radical political and social movements standing behind educational change, school reform is unlikely except in the cosmetic sense. At the same time, if education does not become central to mass struggles, there will be no radical change in society. What should unite this movement for radical democracy is not only a broad-based defense of public goods, but tactics and strategies that involve direct action, political education and cultural politics. What is at stake here are not just mass movements aimed at overthrowing the economic structures of finance capital, but also forms of collective resistance whose aim is to combat the repressive formative cultures that enable state and corporate violence to be internalized and legitimized. There will be no successful movement for insurrectional change unless mass movements come together and provide the pedagogical and cultural preconditions for creating the modes of agency identification, visions, values and social relations necessary for ushering in a democratic socialist society.

One of the challenges that educators, youth, artists, cultural workers and others fighting for social change must address is how to make the political more pedagogical. This would necessitate connecting social problems, political and economic structures and everyday experiences with the construction of an educated political consciousness marked by a disciplined attention to meaning that enlarges "critical awareness of and of moral judgment in relation to [such experiences], an exercise of intelligence," which seems in short supply today. 

The great Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci provided a valuable lesson for educators in his insistence that it is crucial to separate neither culture from systemic relations of power and state violence nor politics from the production of knowledge and identities shaped by such violence. This suggests that educators and other cultural workers begin to address how politics bears down on everyday life and becomes habitual through the force of its pedagogical practices, relations, and discourses. 

At the very least, it is crucial to acknowledge that education as an emancipatory force is central to politics because it provides the foundation for those willing to engage democracy as a site of struggle, which can only be waged through a consciousness of both its fragility and necessity. What educators and other cultural workers cannot do is look away, because the fascist danger that confronts democracy is no longer in the shadows. Yet far too many critics refuse to acknowledge how the ghost of a fascism that prevailed in the past is still with us in different forms and is becoming triumphant in the present. Education, cultural politics and mass consciousness face an enemy in the current historical moment that is about to engulf us all. The necessity to take up the fight against a rebranded fascism is no longer a matter of imagining a different and more emancipatory politics; it is an urgency that demands a revival of both an insurgent historical consciousness and the will to act collectively to usher in a future filled with socialist dreams of equality, freedom and justice rather than the nightmare politics of an authoritarian present.


Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux is University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of numerous books, including "America at War With Itself," "On Critical Pedagogy" and "American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism." His newest book, "Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education at a Time of Crisis," was recently published by Bloomsbury.

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