A US survey in April last year found that 58 percent of Americans believe that torture under certain circumstances can be justified. Henry Giroux is rightly horrified. He argues that a combination of neoliberal capitalism, the rise of state terrorism following 9/11 and advances in internet and smartphone technology have brought about an unprecedented crisis in US culture, with frightening consequences. And although Giroux can be accused of exaggeration, much of his argument not only rings true, but has significant implications for Europe and the UK.
First, neoliberalism has not only created massive inequality via the privatisation of a host of formally public services, and a corrupted tax system that favours the rich, but a system that “considers any claims made for equality, justice and democracy quaint, if not dangerous”. Giroux also points to the way the assault on public services has been carried out alongside the growth of a culture whereby “those who suffer the misfortunes of poverty, unemployment, low-skill jobs, homelessness” and so on become, not only the “object of humiliation and scorn”, but are told it “is their fault”. And to reinforce the point, they are put under “constant surveillance and punished for minor infractions”.
Second, what Giroux calls the rise of the terrorist state has not only resulted in the transformation of the US police into a militarised, heavily armed force. It has also seen the trampling of civil liberties and an unprecedented rise in mass surveillance, leading to a world in which “the reality of extreme violence and the spectacle of violence merge”. He argues that not only has violence become a form of entertainment and a sport, but a “principal means of mediation to which people turn to solve problems”.
Third, new technology has provided an interface between state and corporate modes enabling the mass collecting of personal information, and in the process “normalised surveillance”. Giroux points to the increasing tendency for people to not only provide personal details about themselves via Facebook and other platforms, but to the “selfie” phenomenon.
Finally Giroux, a founding figure in the US movement for critical pedagogy, is rightfully anxious about the chronic state of the US education system, and the systematic way much of what is taught is no longer aimed at instilling critical thinking but merely training students for their future roles in corporate America. He is, however, also anxious about the effect that decades of cuts, short-term contracts and so on has had on US intellectuals and academics, and he decries what he claims is their lack of protest and concern about the state of US society.
There are two big problems with Giroux’s book. First, much of it is repetitive but, second, it is also relentless. At times it seems there is just no hope for US culture. That said, he does tip his hat to important developments, particularly the Occupy Movement and the Black Lives Matter campaign. And Bernie Sanders gets a favourable mention. But missing is the US Fast Food Workers’ campaign, last year’s strike by Walmart workers in a host of US cities, the Chicago teachers’ strike and so on.
Finally, Giroux’s own solution to the crisis — a campaign combining education and politics and aimed at creating a radical democratic democracy — though laudable, remains a hope rather than a concrete programme. But Sanders’s presidential campaign is unveiling, yet again, a rich vein of radicalism in the US that can hopefully give substance to Giroux’s wishes.