Tikkun Rabbi Michael Lerner: Call for a New Language of Environmental and Social Responsibility, a New Spiritual Covenant

Cultural Intelligence
Michael Lerner
Michael Lerner
[ Editor’s Note: Henry Giroux, a frequent author for Tikkun magazine, calls for a movement that challenges what Giroux calls “the neoliberal nightmare” and presents a new language of civic values and social responsibility.The ESRA–the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Spiritual Covenant with America at www.spiritualprogressives.org are examples of how the Network of Spiritual Progressives is creating a cadre of people who do precisely what Giroux thinks is needed to counter Neoliberalism’s war against the radical imagination. –Rabbi Michael Lerner ]

Neoliberalism’s War Against the Radical Imagination.


Henry Giroux
McMaster University

Democracy is on life support in the United States. Throughout the social order the forces of predatory capitalism are on the march dismantling the ideological and material traces of the welfare state, increasing the role of corporate money in politics, waging an assault on unions, expanding the corporate-surveillance-military state, promoting widening inequalities in wealth and income, defunding higher education, privatizing public education, waging a war on women’s reproductive rights, and undercutting public faith in the defining institutions of democracy.[i] As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish—from higher education to community health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good.

We increasingly live in societies based on the vocabulary of ‘choice’ and a denial of reality – a denial of massive inequality, social disparities, the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands, and a growing machinery of social death and culture of cruelty.[ii] As power becomes global and is removed from local and nation-based politics, more and more individuals and groups are being defined by a free floating class of ultra-rich and corporate power brokers as disposable, redundant, or a threat to the forces of concentrated power. Disposability has become the new measure of a neoliberal society in which the only value that matters is exchange value and matters of compassion, social responsibility, and justice are relegated to the dustbin of an older modernity that now is viewed as wither quaint or a grim reminder of a socialist past. A culture of crime and dispossession has become the organizing principle of society in which a certain kind of doubling takes place. Corporate bankers and power brokers trade with terrorists, bankrupt the economy, and commit all manner of crimes that impact on millions and they go free indicating that they are above the law and that the law is now in the hands of corrupt allies. At the same time, the US continues to criminalize all sorts of behavior ranging from dress codes to peaceful demonstrations. Low income whites, poor minorities, immigrants are being jailed in record numbers for nonviolent offenses as it becomes clear that justice is on the side of the rich, wealthy, and powerful who see these populations as both a threat and disposable. And when the wealthy do commit crimes, they rarely are sent to prison, even though millions languish under a correctional system aimed at punishing low income whites and poor minorities. One egregious example of how the justice system works in favor of the rich was on full display in Texas recently. Instead of being sent to prison, Ethan Couch, a wealthy teen who killed four people while driving inebriated was given ten years of probation and ordered by the judge to attend an expensive rehabilitation facility that cost $450,000 a year, which will be paid for by his parents. The defense argued that he had “affluenza,” a “disease” in which children of privilege allegedly are never given the opportunity to learn how to be responsible.[iii] In this case, irresponsibility becomes a virtue for the rich and allows them to actually kill people and escape the reach of justice. Under such circumstances, justice becomes a euphemism for injustice as wealth and power dictate who benefits and who doesn’t by a system of law that now enshrines lawlessness. One consequence of this doubling of justice is the emergence of a growing number of people, especially young people, who increasingly inhabit zones of hardship, suffering, exclusion, joblessness, and terminal exclusion. In addition, fear misplaced from an authoritarian government and those social conditions which makes survival more important than the quest for the good life. Under such circumstances, Americans live in a sinister web of ethical and material poverty manufactured by a state that trades in suspicion, bigotry, state sanctioned violence, and disposability. Democracy loses its character as a disruptive element, a force of dissent, an insurrectional call for responsible change, and degenerates into an assault on the radical imagination, reconfigures itself as a force for bleaching all ethical and moral considerations, and thrives in a state of exception, which in reality is a state of permanent war. A culture of greed, greed, dispossession, fear, and surveillance has now been normalized.

This is all the more reason for educators and others to address important social issues and to defend higher education as a democratic public sphere. We live in a world in which everything is now privatized, transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” and subject to the vicissitudes of the military- security state.[iv] One consequence is the emergence of what the late Tony Judt called an “eviscerated society”—“one that is stripped of the thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities to be found in” any viable democracy.[v] This grim reality has produced a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will, and open democracy.”[vi] It is also part of a politics that strips society of any democratic ideals and renders its democratic character inoperative.

The ideological script is now familiar: there is no such thing as the common good; market values become the template for governing all of social life, not just the economy; a survival-of the fittest ethic now drives the stories we tell about ourselves; individual responsibility is promoted in order to tear up social solidarities; militaristic values trump democratic ideals; the welfare state is the arch enemy of freedom; private interests negate public values; consumerism becomes the only obligation of citizenship; law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and war becomes the all-embracing organizing principle for developing society and the economy.[vii]

Given this current crisis, educators, artists, intellectuals, youth, and workers need a new political and pedagogical language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which capital draws upon an unprecedented convergence of resources–financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological–to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control. If educators and others are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to separate the traditional sphere of politics from the now transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, a market economy and a market society. Nothing will change unless the left and progressives take seriously the subjective underpinnings of neoliberal oppression. In the current historical conjuncture, politics is about more than the struggle over power and economics but also the struggle over particular modes of subjectivity and agency.

Under neoliberal regimes, the production of desire, identity, values, and modes of identification are increasingly produced through forms of neoliberal public pedagogy. These new modes of pedagogy are distributed through a variety of sites and cultural apparatuses and interpellate, in the Althusserian sense, subjects defined exclusively by market-driven values and the prioritization of exchange values over public values. The power of the imagination, dissent, and the willingness to hold power accountable constitute a major threat to authoritarian regimes, and increasingly to existing modes of higher education that now define themselves as part of a larger neoliberal rationality and culture.

Under the reign of neoliberalism, the university is turning into a modern day version of the sweatshop for adjunct and non-tenured faculty. A university without a proper faculty and governance structure is not a university wedded to democratic values and education for empowerment and autonomy; on the contrary, it is a site of reactionary power where all vestiges of critical thinking and exchange are wiped out. The ideological assault waged on the university for the critical role it played for democratization in the sixties and seventies is now almost complete. Education is now synonymous with training and the imagination has been banished from a once, somewhat vibrant site of critical engagement.

This neoliberal assault on politics, education, and culture suggests developing forms of subjectivity capable of challenging casino capitalism and other anti-democratic traditions including the increasing criminalization of social problems such as homelessness, while resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond the “dream world” of capitalism. Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes, turning students into consumers, deskilling faculty, governing through the lens of a business culture, and dumbing down the curriculum by substituting training for a critically informed education. How else to explain the following comment made by the President of Macomb Community College: “Macomb is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in.”[viii] Or for that matter the attempts in Florida, Texas, and other states to defund the humanities and reward those disciplines and programs that blatantly serve corporate interests. In opposition to these conservative assaults the critical thinking and the power of the imagination, it is crucial for educators, intellectuals, young people, artists, and others to create the formative cultures necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the very idea of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, social relations, and politics. At stake here is the educative nature of politics itself, and the development and protection of those institutions that make such a politics possible.

In both conservative and progressive discourses education is often reduced to a set of corporate strategies and stripped-down skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter, one that defines the citizen as a consumer, schooling as an act of consumption, faculty as entrepreneurs, and students as customers. In opposition to the instrumental reduction of education to an adjunct of corporate and neoliberal interest—which has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship–critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power.[ix] For instance, it raises questions regarding who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Is the production of knowledge and curricula in the hands of teachers, textbook companies, corporate interests, the elite, or other forces? Central to any viable notion that what makes a education critical is, in part, the recognition that is always implicated in power relations because it offers particular versions and visions of civic life, community, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment. Education is part of a broader struggle over knowledge, subjectivities, values, and the future. It is under a massive assault in Greece, the United States, and England because it is one of the few places left that is capable of educating students to be critical, thoughtful, and engaged citizens willing to take risks, stretch their imaginations, and most importantly hold power accountable. The consequences of turning universities into places that produce commodities represents the nightmare that neoliberalism defends as part of its methodical ruthlessness towards others, its hatred of democracy, and its fear of young people who increasingly realize they have been shut out of the language of democracy, justice, and hope.

One of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers, youth, and other cultural workers is the challenge of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility. This means insisting that democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as higher education in which civic values, public scholarship, and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity, and civic courage. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. Democracy as Michael Lerner has argued in another context needs a Marshall Plan, one in which funding is provided to make all levels of education free while providing enough funding to eliminate poverty, hunger, inadequate health care, and the destruction of the environment. Democracy needs a politics that can envision not just hope but a different future, one in which the struggle for justice is never finished and the highest of values is caring for and being responsible to others.

Neoliberalism is a toxin that is generating a predatory class of the walking dead who are producing what might be called dead zones of the imagination, and they are waging a fierce fight against the possibilities of a world in which the promise of justice and democracy are worth fighting for, but the future is still open. The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility, and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency, and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization, and set of strategies to challenge the neoliberal nightmare engulfing the planet.

[i] See, for example, David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Wendy Brown, Edgework (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2010).

[ii] See, for instance, on the rise of the racist punishing state, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010); on the severe costs of massive inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: Norton, 2012); on the turning of public schools into prisons, see Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York: Verso, 2011).

[iii] Amy Goodman, “Affluenza Defense Lands Wealthy Teen in rehab after he Kills 4 People in Drunk Driving Accident.” Democracy Now (February 7, 2014). Online: http://www.democracynow.org/2014/2/7/affluenza_defense_lands_wealthy_teen_in

[iv]. Quoted in Michael L. Silk and David L. Andrews. “(Re) Presenting Baltimore: Place, Policy, Politics, and Cultural Pedagogy.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 33 (2011), p. 436.

[v] Terry Eagleton, “Reappraisals: What is the worth of social democracy?” Harper’s Magazine, (October 2010), p. 78.online at: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083150

[vi]. Alex Honneth, Pathologies of Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 188.

[vii] For an excellent analysis of contemporary forms of neoliberalism, Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011, pp. 705-728; see also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

[viii] Mike Wilkinson, “For career Success, a higher degree means higher earnings,” Bridge Magazine (December 17, 2013). Online: http://www.mlive.com/education/index.ssf/2013/12/for_career_success_higher_degr.html

[ix] For examples of this tradition, see Maria Nikolakaki, ed. Critical Pedagogy in the Dark Ages: Challenges and Possibilities, (New York: Peter Lang, 2012); Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Continuum, 2011).