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There is a great post at Truthout from Henry Giroux which talks at length about the incorporation of the intellectual into the prevailing market capitalist order. The Academy, which Giroux asserts should “speak truth to power,” is increasingly subsumed by power itself. The result, which is not difficult to see, is intellectuals doing little more than helping prepare students to take their place in the job market, or indeed, developing theories or products that themselves are incorporated into the current economic order — schools of management are ideal examples of factories of this kind of commodifiable thought… marketable thought.
When it comes to the role of students in the Academy, Giroux expands on his ideas in this interview.
They [students] often come to the university with no language for defining themselves or citizenship itself outside of the demands of a consumerist society, making it all the more difficult for them to challenge the university as an adjunct of corporate values and interests. This means that those of us teaching in the humanities not only inhabit classrooms with dwindling resources, but increasingly face students who do not value knowledge that does not immediately translate into a job opportunity or seems at odds with simple translations offered by an utterly commodified popular culture.
This is what is most unsettling about the current era that we live in. After the largest failure of global capital in 70 years, not to mention the largest ecological catastrophe in United States history in the form of Big Oil’s assault on the Gulf of Mexico, very few of us are asking, “How could things be different?” Not only do we fail to ask what could be different, we come to school as if programmed to accept the status quo as inevitable, and our role within it seems inevitable too. As Giroux notes in his article about the disappearing intellectual, according to the current discourse, “the economic order is either sanctioned by God or exists simply as an extension of nature.”
When I read this, I had just reached the chapter in Capital where Marx explicitly says that relations between workers and capitalists are not a product of nature. But as Giroux is saying, that’s not what you’d think by looking at popular culture or even the academy. Neo-liberalism has been so triumphant that capitalism now seems as inevitable as the passing of the seasons. The logic has been internalized by rich and poor alike. In a certain respect, one can see why it’s so effective. At essence, the message is a very, very simple one. “Allow individuals maximum freedom to pursue their own self-interest, and prosperity and happiness will follow.” This appeals to people’s sense of inherent worth. They’ll say “I’m canny and enterprising… I could be rich and happy… if I could just get ahead.” Then the bigoted among them, which might include many in the Tea Party, would add, “I could be rich and happy, just if government could get out of my way… or if those lazy blacks weren’t stealing all my money for their social programs… or if those Mexicans weren’t taking all the jobs” etc.
Politics then gets reduced to the dynamic of individual on one side and all the freedom-menacing forces on the other. Meanwhile, we overlook how we historically developed into the system we live in today. And the system, as it’s currently constructed, does not actually permit a whole lot of freedom, unless we’re talking about the amazing freedom of being able to consume a nearly infinite number of consumer products. Our lack of freedom is not down to some statist, socialist plot. It’s because capitalists own and control the game.
You can almost palpably feel the shackles. It isn’t that we cannot protest or voice dissent. It isn’t that we can’t write books or blogs that question the system. It’s that we cannot see dissent leading to meaningful change. The existing order has only intensified in its power. Without a critical mass of dissenters, individuals start to question the merit of their own actions. We might cohere for a while in a small group, but to be dedicated to round-the-clock dissent is very difficult, because there is no space where the rules of capitalism don’t apply; you can’t throw yourself into uncompromising rebellion because you’re going to end up unemployed, broke, on the streets, or worse, in jail. And in the West, there are no squats or communes or alternate forms of living that pose a genuine threat to the state — with the possible exception of Indian reserves — so alternate means of living these days are essentially a retreat and a form of escapism, rather than a means of starting the transition to another social and economic order.
Nevertheless, as Giroux and others have noted, there is still a lot of work ahead in the realm of theory, and so there is no reason to give up. At the moment, I am not convinced that there actually is a viable alternative to capitalism; not one that takes into account the exact conditions we find ourselves in here and now. Efforts are being made to conceptualize an alternate form of economics, to define value differently, and many are embarking on ways of understanding how we return to a peaceable form of agriculture — including my own cousin and his wife. Others are occupied with figuring out more equitable forms of social relations — hence feminism and post-colonial discourse — and exploding the narrow confines of mass culture-imposed identity. At some point, hopefully, many of these efforts will come together in a unifying vision that offers to the public en masse a path out of our current quagmire.
If this is indeed the task ahead, the importance of what Giroux is talking about is accentuated only more. At the moment, the Academy appears to be one of the major places where an expansive theory capable of transforming the prevailing destructive ethos could have its productive birth.
It is precisely over the creation of alternative democratic public spheres that such a struggle against neoliberal, economic Darwinism can and should be waged by academics, intellectuals, artists, and other cultural workers. Higher education, labor unions, the alternative media and progressive social movements offer important sites for academics and other intellectuals to form alliances, reach out to a broader public and align with larger social movements. Critical intellectuals must do whatever they can to nurture formative critical cultures and social movements that can dream beyond the “mad-agency that is power in a new form, death-in-life.” At the same time, they must challenge all aspects of the neoliberal disciplinary apparatus – from its institutions of power to its pedagogical modes of rationality – in order to make its politics, pedagogy and hidden registers of power visible. Only then will the struggle for the renewal of peace and justice become possible.
So it’s hardly a time for the intellectual to disappear. On the contrary. It’s time for the intellectual to roll up the sleeves of his wrinkly shirt, beat his fist upon the dusty chalkboard, and roar to his students, “Let’s build the new socio-economic order!”
Henry Giroux is the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. (The title seems a little ironic; I’m sure I’m not the only one to have noticed.)