Our Neoliberal Darkness: Catastrophe as a Commodity, Violence as Public Curriculum and Pedagogy


Jim Burns I Society & Culture I Analysis I November 24th, 2015



As reports of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris emerged the evening of November 13, I remember breathing the audible sigh one breathes at hearing news simultaneously shocking and unsurprising. That sigh also expressed a sense of despair in knowing that the West would react with violent hubris to an act of terrorism largely manufactured by the West's own historical violence toward the Middle East, which stretches far further into history than the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Predictably, rather than the emergence of a productive politicization of the latest in a seemingly endless series of atrocities committed both by terrorists and by state forces engaged in a perpetual war on terror prosecuted largely by the U.S. in defiance of relative sanity, we again find ourselves in another tired "I told you so" moment marked by the most banal of polemics. As Sam Kriss (2015) writes:

"There is the politicization that seizes on death for limited political aims, and then there is the politicization that would refuse any predetermined script other than the call for liberation. It insists on the political nature of tragedy, not to shunt it towards one or another narrative pit, or to put a left-ish or right-ish filter over the images of bloodshed, but because politics is a way out of all of this."

Once again, as Kriss suggests, we have succumbed to the former and eschewed the latter. Consider the ubiquitous violence that threatens to engulf us all in perdition's flames:


· America's military terror campaign manifested in the physical destruction of nation-states and the ensuing refugee crises and sectarian violence;

· Drone wars as a form of extraterritorial capital punishment, in which nearly 90% of the casualties in Operation Haymaker were not the intended targets (see Deveraux, 2015);

· An ever-widening American military footprint focused increasingly on Africa (see Turse, 2015);

· Widely-reported domestic racist police violence perpetrated against Americans of color on our own streets alongside an assault on their voting rights;

· The militarization of our schools to feed the prison-industrial complex (see Giroux, 2015; Hager, 2015) and the criminalization of poverty to enrich private companies to which probation services have been outsourced (see SPLC, 2015).


Is it any wonder that the West, through its hyper-masculinized violence and neoliberal imperial madness has experienced what the late Chalmers Johnson, in his trilogy about the expansion of the American Empire, called "blowback?" Originally an internal CIA term, "blowback" describes the unintended consequences of policies and operations deliberately kept secret from the American public. The danger, or perhaps from the perspective of the corporate state the benefit, of blowback lies in the inability of the citizenry to contextualize the violence associated with blowback, which militates against serious discussion of why, for example the Paris or September 11 attacks occurred and what motivated the attackers. Instead, as Kriss (2015) writes, the Paris attacks are being politicized to seize on "death for limited political aims," which by now-American, French, and Russian escalation of military violence in Syria and elsewhere-are all too tragically apparent.

Of course all events occur in social, political, cultural, and historic context, and every aspect of the violence associated with the attacks in Paris, the West's reaction to them, and the willful ignorance of similar violence in the non-Western world demonstrate the link between institutional violence and the enthrallment with neoliberal ideology. Specifically, David Harvey's (2005) analysis of accumulation by dispossession, the upward redistribution of all forms of wealth through dispossessing the masses of myriad resources, is particularly instructive. As Harvey (2005) explains, accumulation by dispossession is facilitated partly by the manufacture, management, and manipulation of crises. Accumulation by dispossession results not only in the upward redistribution of economic resources, but the concomitant upward redistribution of political power through the concentration of wealth, thus dispossessing people of their political agency through the corporate state's manipulation of crises such as the Paris attacks. As Henry Giroux (2014a, b) notes, corporatized neoliberal states have, over the last four decades, positioned burgeoning groups of people as disposable and democracy itself as an excess. Societies based on vicious neoliberal assumptions about hyper-individualism, self-interest, and the application of a market ethos to every sphere of life, particularly when individuals internalize every form of systemic oppression as individual failure, foster cynicism, the abandonment of the social, and the death of the political. Neoliberal cynicism, carefully cultivated, is the antithesis of nobler values of community, compassion, democratic citizenship, justice, and equality, which hold the only possibility to transcend the false narratives and choices that keep us divided, compliant, and complicit in the perpetuation of gross injustice.

In the context of the Paris attacks, the dominant voices in the corporate media responded predictably by fitting the violence into preexisting frames of reference rather than sitting quietly in the pain of events to contemplate their historicized complexity or the media's role in it all. Rather than engage in a difficult struggle to understand the violence or dialogue about how we might reconstruct ourselves and the world as a more equitable, just, sustainable, and peaceful place, the West has, once again, turned to violence as the first, and seemingly only recourse. Thus, an immensely complex set of issues has effectively devolved into a nationalistic, racialized, anti-Islamic discourse of being either with or against "us." President Obama, seemingly oblivious to the historic baggage associated with the binary construction of civilization and savagery deployed repeatedly by the White, Christian, capitalist West as a rationalization for brutal colonization, reduced the violence in Paris to simply an "attack on the civilized world" (Shear & Baker, 2015). French President Holland, in an apparent attempt to "man up" in front of the French Right represented by former President Sarkozy and anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who urged France to "annihilate" Islamic radicals (see de La Hamaide, 2015), declared the terrorist attacks in Paris an "act of war," which the French state would prosecute mercilessly. President Holland appears to have forgotten that France has been at war as a proxy in America's, thus the world's, "war on terror" ad infinitum as illustrated by French participation in botched operations in Mali and the aerial bombardment of Syria.

History indeed tends to repeat itself. For example, in response to the blowback of September 11, 2001, the major media, to the relief of the corporate state and the military-industrial complex, failed, as Johnson (2004/2000) suggests, to pursue critical questions about the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington or the rush to war. Instead, our corporate media marketed a simpler, less introspective storyline based on the question "Why do they hate us?", and cast the U.S. as the victim of evildoers intent on destroying freedom and democracy complete with flags and "patriotic" glitz in every lead-in to stories from reporters attempting to accumulate careerist capital by covering the war. Similarly, before the dust had cleared in Paris and the identities and stories of the dead were fully known, the French government exercised its aggrieved entitlement to violence as it mounted a series of "massive" airstrikes to restore itself from its national emasculation by a group of terrorists. In a bitter irony, the French government appears to be playing out a contemporary version of Tartuffe as France's Orgon is hypnotized by America's Tartuffe, a charlatan claiming the divine piety and authority of an "exceptional" nation engaged in a manufactured crisis and a profitable Hobbesian war of each against all.

Reactions to the violence included gestures of solidarity such as overlaying one's Facebook profile photo with a French flag and Facebook's enabling of the "safety check" feature during the attacks. Facebook came under criticism for not enabling the feature in the aftermath of a similar attack in Beirut the day before that killed at least 43 immediately, in which critics accused Facebook of valuing Western lives more than those in the Middle East (Mandhai, 2015). The Sunday following the Paris attacks, the National Football League, which has commodified and marketed socially sanctioned gladiatorial violence to the tune of billions of dollars annually, observed a moment of silence in remembrance of those killed in Paris while members of the U.S. military unfurled American flags on the fields, and coaches wore camouflaged gear on the sidelines before sending their players to metaphorical war on the field.

Alongside the more somber remembrances of those killed in Paris, much of the discourse among the anti-public anti-intellectuals ubiquitous on the corporate airwaves and in the Twitterverse used the Paris attack to market a vile predetermined script shot through with racism, Islamophobia, and nationalistic hubris. Familiar anti-intellectuals such as Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter raced to outdo each other in politicizing the Paris attacks to fit their tired and inane narratives. Gingrich used the Paris attack to attack gun legislation on Twitter ("Imagine a theater with 10 or 15 citizens with concealed carry permits.") while Coulter attempted to chastise American, read Black American, college students for protesting institutional racism on campus (see Vicens, 2015). Bill O'Reilly used his November 16 Talking Points Memo (see O'Reilly, 2015) to accuse a "delusional" President Obama of losing "control of the war on terror" and called for NATO to declare war on ISIS (a transnational entity, not a recognized state). The memorialization and rage associated with the Paris attacks has been commodified to market a specific narrative, which includes the rationalization of violence to, in Le Pen's words, "annihilate" Muslim radicals. Simultaneously, the West consistently ignores similar attacks in places like Beirut, Kenya, and Israeli violence against Palestinians, which exemplify the ubiquitous sectarian violence unleashed precisely by the West's long history of violent imperialism in the Middle East.

Of course, nationalistic bluster is nothing new. I remember learning about "Yellow Journalism," "jingoism," and was fed a steady diet of propaganda during the Cold War. Historically, dissenting media voices, most notably Edward R. Murrow, who saw the danger of news as a commodified form of entertainment rather than a space of public intellectual discourse and a form of public curriculum and pedagogy, became increasingly marginalized. Murrow's 1958 speech to the then Radio-Television News Directors Association (now the Radio Television Digital News Association) delivered a prophetic warning about corporatized media, noting that television:

"can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box." (see Barnett, 2008)

The response to the attacks in Paris certainly suggests that the corporate states and media of the West continue to weave a racialized, classed, religiously intolerant, nationalistic narrative predicated on violence and an ethic of cruelty, which represents the "only currency with any enduring value" to market news while camouflaging its pedagogical influence (Giroux, 2014a, p. 9). As Herman and Chomsky (1988) wrote in Manufacturing Consent, we see in the nexus of corporatized media and the corporate state the proliferation of a framework, a hidden curriculum, established by an "elite consensus," which delimits the boundaries of discourse and dissent:

"The U.S. media do not function in the manner of the propaganda system of a totalitarian state. Rather, they permit-indeed, encourage-spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness." (p. 302)

Analysis of the contemporary failings of our media and other socio-political spaces in the present neoliberal paradigm is certainly not intended to romanticize some pristine bygone era to which we must return. The servile role being played by the major media today both to the corporate state and as part of the corporate state with a direct financial interest in marketing violence (see, for example Amy Goodman's interview with Glenn Greenwald on Democracy Now!) is reminiscent of George Creel's propaganda machine, which manufactured fear of Socialism, organized labor, and opposition to the draft during World War I (see Zinn, 1980). In the wake of the Paris attacks, our media, political leaders, and corporate merchants of death who stand to make a financial and literal killing from the racist fear of enemies we created, appear to be marketing a contemporary version of war as what Randolph Bourne observed in 1918, "the health of the state." Bourne (1918) saw how the toxic nexus of corporate-state power and the state itself as a "mystical concept" derives a sense of "health" or purpose through war that "lags in a non-militarized republic:

"War automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing the obedience of minority groups and individuals which lack the "herd" sense. Machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; political minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought around by a subtle process of persuasion that seems to convert them…. [I]n general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State's ideal, which could not be produced through any other way but through the agency of war." (pp. 6-7)

Our brief national history is replete with monumental failures to live up to our professed ideals and to recognize and work through the contradictions and paradoxes woven into our national narrative:


· Our "peculiar" institution of slavery, codified in our constitution, which remains with us in all forms of systemic racial oppression;

· The brutal genocide perpetrated on Native Peoples to dispossess them of their lands, resources, and cultures rationalized as "Manifest Destiny";

· Sensationalist, jingoistic Yellow Journalism as America began flexing its imperialist muscles in the nexus of corporate-government power;

· The brutal work conditions and violent suppression of organized labor on which many corporate fortunes were built;

· Violent anti-immigrant sentiment and immigration quotas aimed at whichever racial and ethnic group was considered disposable at the time;

· Precursors to the current violence in the Middle East such as the Mandate System and the U.S.-British overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh because the British wanted access to Iran's oil;

· Violent infringements on protected political speech such as the imprisonment of Eugene Debs for publicly opposing the draft during World War I, and while incarcerated Debs received nearly one million votes for president in 1920 running as a Socialist.


The tendency toward historical amnesia, as Gore Vidal (2004) put it, is part of our national narrative, as is the historic distrust of intellectualism and intellectuals of which Richard Hofstadter (1962/1963) wrote more than 50 years ago. Yet the difference in our current circumstances, which concerns me as a teacher and a public intellectual, lies in what Giroux (2014a) calls organized forgetting, which seeks the systematized "disimagination" of the American people. Our organized forgetting is manifested in the disavowal of our own history, a process of de-historicization through which we collectively descend into what Christopher Lasch (1979) called a culture of narcissism. Such a culture is characterized, as William Pinar (2012) notes, by a withdrawal from public and even private life in which people become lost, perhaps consumed with, themselves "unable to distinguish between self and other, let alone participate meaningfully in the public sphere" (p.4). And, I would argue, imagine any other future than the present in which they live. Part of our historical narcissism lies the myth of our exceptionalism as the shining city on the hill, a beacon of liberty, equality, and democratic freedom. We are exceptional in none of this and have defaulted on those values time and time again. This is America's great lie to itself, an aggrieved mythology comprised of a disavowed history of a people reticent to discuss the trauma they have perpetuated on themselves and many Others.

As a teacher and curriculum scholar, my concern lies in the increasingly commodified nature of our public and political discursive spaces to the extent that our understanding of curriculum, both in formal education spaces and in public spaces and discourses, what I call public curricula and pedagogies, have been overwhelmed by a marketizing, anti-public, anti-intellecutal ideology illustrated by a calculus of disposability and the Orwellian erasure of inconvenient histories. I worry, particularly in the absence of powerful social movements and the disastrous corporatization of our schools, universities, and public and political spaces, that the anti-public anti-intellectual establishment, including both major political parties, has become so powerful that the creation of a counter-narrative is becoming increasingly difficult. Rather than engaging with each other through formal and informal curricula and pedagogies in what Pinar (2012) calls a subjective struggle to understand ourselves in the world, our nation is perversely standing divided against itself as public discussion and dissent have been marketed by a corporate elite consensus as "conservative" and "liberal" media to which adherents loyally flock daily to receive standardized information packages to affirm their preexisting beliefs rather than challenge them to think. As Jeff Schmidt (2000) demonstrated in Disciplined Minds, professionals like teachers and journalists, who engage in creative work, do so in the context of institutional, increasingly corporatized, ideologies that fundamentally limit their creative work to serve an institution's bottom line. While careerism and elements of ideological discipline have always been present in bureaucratized systems (see Foucault's governmentality), the accumulation of corporate power through dispossessing burgeoning groups of people of all forms of wealth, particularly their political agency as citizens, has positioned corporatized institutional practices, power relations, and disciplinary ideologies as so powerful that they are difficult to challenge.

In contrast Murrow's media ideal, the concentration of corporate power in media conglomerates and in the toxic nexus of the corporate state eviscerates any pretense of media as a public educative space imbued with intellectual dialogue. Our media, as well as our formal educational institutions, have largely descended into institutions of indoctrination, complicit in perpetuating utterly instrumental public discourses bound to a prevailing hegemonic narrative predicated on nativism, religious intolerance, racism, extreme nationalism, classism, and the rationalization of a twisted, mythopoetic, hyper-masculinized ethos of violence as restorative to "the health of the state." America's default on values of freedom, justice, and equality has been accompanied by its exceptional violence and militarism. From its initial violent colonization through the present, our nation has been in a near constant state of war, both with other nations and with Others here at home. Our history of violence appears to have become our prevailing national ideology and identity.

It doesn't have to be this way. We as a nation, particularly in the context of Gramsci's conceptualization of organic intellectuals, must dialogue with intentionality across disparate progressive groups, which for too long have ensconced themselves according to narrowly defined interests, whether those interests lie in anti-racism, labor, peace, sustainability, feminism, children's rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration-the list is endless. We must also broaden our understanding of violence as more than physical violence to include all forms of systemic and institutional violence such as poverty, anti-labor sentiment, environmental destruction, and the obscene disparities in human well-being created by unsustainable, unjust, and undemocratic economic, social, and political policies. We must see that all our particular issues of justice are highly intersected. For example, racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, religious intolerance, and ableism are firmly embedded in social, economic, and political policies that seek to cut social programs, eviscerate labor protections, dispossess citizens of their voting rights, and destroy the living spaces of historically marginalized peoples. The interests of one group's fight for justice resonate with the interests of all the others, and our future liberation from all forms of structural violence lies in recognizing our intersected interests and joining together in the difficult task of building a powerful social movement to hold institutional power accountable and most importantly re-define hegemonic power relations as more just, equitable, and democratic. Moreover, this movement must transcend national boundaries in order to thwart the imperialist spread of neoliberal ideology and all its inherent violence.

Just as issues of justice are intersected, so, too, are events like the Paris attack connected to intersected issues and histories, and it is the job of organic public intellectuals to commit to the hard emotional labor of connecting the dots, both for ourselves and for others. Just as American history is filled with some of the most egregious betrayals of our values, there are also many marginalized histories that can provide the educated hope through we can work toward a critical consciousness-The Lakota leader Red Cloud, who stood in defiance against White America's colonization of the West; labor activists like Joe Hill, Caesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, and Mother Jones; political leaders like Eugene Debs; civil rights leaders like Du Bois, King, Hamer, Wells, Malcolm X, and Tubman, giants in what Cornell West calls the Black Prophetic Tradition; LGBTQ activists such as Harvey Milk, Sylvia Rivera, and many more. And although many of those stories ended tragically, they provide, as Howard Zinn demonstrated, new heroes whose stories can inspire us to build a more just, peaceful, and sustainable country and world together.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer discusses two ways in which we can experience heartbreak. We can, in our sorrow and trauma, have our hearts broken apart, shattered into shards of bitterness and hate. Alternatively, our hearts can break open to new possibilities for ourselves and for our world and lives together. As a teacher, I know through research and experience that true learning as a process of becoming requires the constant breaking apart of our existing beliefs, assumptions, and frames of reference. In the context of Gramsci's "common sense," we must unlearn much of what we know in order to reconstruct ourselves and the world. Some of the most painful, fruitful, and valuable lessons I have ever learned have come at the expense of my own ego, which required jettisoning partial and erroneous beliefs about a great many things. The work of social transformation toward a more just, compassionate, equitable, sustainable, and peaceful world is the work of organic public intellectuals who reject simplistic anti-public discourses of hubris and "common sense" and embody the courage to embrace public curricula and pedagogies of humility toward the development of a critical consciousness. As a teacher who regards education as an inherently political struggle to find ourselves in the world, our only real hope to reconstruct the self and the social lies in a praxis of what Michele Foucault called "dissenting counter-conducts" through which to fundamentally reframe institutional power relations. As Kriss (2015) reminds us in the aftermath of Paris, a genuine dialogic politics of humility driven by organic intellectuals is the only way out, and that work is never finished.


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