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Proto-Fascism in America: Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy

reviewed by Aaron Cooley - 2004

coverTitle: Proto-Fascism in America: Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy
Author(s): Henry A. Giroux
Publisher: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington
ISBN: 0873678524, Pages: 90, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

The claims in Henry Giroux’s Proto-Fascism in America: Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy will ring true for some scholars, will startle others, and will most likely be ignored by those politicians he accuses of leading the

United States down a dangerous path. Giroux’s overarching premise is that the United States is carrying out public policies at home and abroad that are fundamentally wrong. Giroux blames the neoliberal turn in American politics for this disastrous trend. His concept of neoliberalism involves the elevation of the “market” above all other concerns. Further, he agrees with Pirerre Bourdieu that “neoliberalism is a policy of depoliticization—attempting to liberate the economic sphere from all government controls” (p. 63). Giroux’s contempt for this ideology is strongly evident and guides the entire work to the conclusion that neoliberalism contradicts present notions of democratic action and social progress.

Before proceeding, I must mention that writing that questions the future

United States as a functioning democracy was common during the founding of our country; so, critics should not be tempted to marginalize this work simply on the grounds that it questions the dominant political and economic philosophy of our time. With that plea to open-mindedness regarding Giroux’s dissent, this review will articulate examples of the egregious missteps he sees in the neoliberal direction of American public policy. I will attempt to chart a middle ground for policy between the views that Giroux takes and the neoliberal perspective that he critiques.

The first trend that Giroux tackles to support his critique of neoliberalism is the expansion of the military. He states, “This radical shift in the size, scope, and influence of the military can be seen on the one hand, in the redistribution in domestic resources and government funding away from social programs and into military-oriented security measures at home and into the war abroad” (p. 1). From the outset, Giroux’s distaste for what he sees as the militarization of American society is clear. He then moves quickly to how this ubiquitous change affects education. Giroux explains, “Schools are one of the most serious public spheres to come under the influence of military culture and values” (p. 3).

After making this brief connection to education, he concludes the introduction by focusing on the hubris of American foreign policy. He ends by commenting, “What is in fact being labeled as a war against terrorism is beginning to look increasingly like a war waged by the Bush Administration against democracy itself” (p. 4). Polemics like that are what would have this work labeled as the “worst of the kook left.” From a pragmatic perspective, I have to assert my worry that the impact and influence of dissent in a democracy may not be best served by comparing two groups that most citizens do not find similar. The rhetoric—regardless of its validity—does not seem persuasive or to be the perception of most people. It is persuasive rhetoric and public perception—not necessarily truth—that give politicians the mandate and power to govern. In a bizarre way, the right is much more post-modern than the left as the right focuses on shaping perception at the expense of truth. This manipulation of perception is something the right has mastered and something many on the left are unwilling to admit. Giroux’s ideas might gain a greater foothold in the public debate if the left learned this lesson from the right.

The next chapter, “The War at Home and Abroad,” fills in the indictment Giroux is pulling together. His sources are diverse, from Senator Robert Byrd’s comments to the words of conservative turncoat Michael Lind, but his focus remains the same. He commands:

Embracing a policy molded largely by fear and bristling with partisan, right-wing ideological interests, the Bush Administration took advantage of the tragedy of 9/11 by adopting and justifying a domestic and foreign policy that blatantly privileged security over freedom, the rule of market over social needs, and militarization over human rights and social justice. (p. 6)

There is certainly no standing still on Giroux’s ideological train, and the picture he paints of

America ’s future under neoliberalism is bleak at best. He continues citing a litany of policies and funding cuts that have adversely affected children and the poor—everything from after school programs to health care. Giroux sees it as no coincidence that citizens with the least political capital are getting the least from their government. Yet, his criticisms go further, claiming that a “culture of intolerance and patriotic jingoism” (p. 11) is changing the meaning of political debate for the worse. Giroux describes this new meaning: “Politics in this instance has much less in common with public engagement than with a heavy reliance on institutions that rule through fear” (p. 11).

Giroux makes an even more troubling assertion by calling attention to changes in the language of the political discourse used to describe social circumstances. Giroux states:

The liberal democratic vocabulary of rights, entitlements, social provisions, community, social responsibility, living wage, job security, equality, and justice seem oddly out of place in a country where the promise of democracy has been replaced by casino capitalism, a winner-take-all philosophy . . . there is no vocabulary for progressive social change, democratically inspired visions, or critical notions of social agency to expand the meaning and purpose of democratic public life” (p. 66).

Giroux sees this neoliberal vision for

America replacing democratic and Deweyan inspired aspirations with those of material consumption. He states: “neoliberalism continues to mobilize desires in the interests of producing market identities and market relationships that ultimately sever the link between education and social change while reducing agency to the obligations of consumerism” (p. 66). Giroux takes up the same strain several pages later: “Neoliberalism has heralded a radical economic, political, and experiential shift that largely defines the citizen as a consumer” (p. 70). The question his comments raise is simple and disturbing: in the future, is America going to be more than just another market?

Giroux concludes by invoking Bourdieu’s thought that: “power of the dominant order is not just economic, but intellectual—lying in the realm of beliefs” (p. 72), which brings the discussion back to education and the development of the beliefs of young citizens. Giroux’s best answer to this question is that: “Democracy necessitates forms of education that provide a new ethic of freedom and reassert collective identity as a central preoccupation of a vibrant democratic culture and society” (p. 72).

Unfortunately for Giroux, he seems to have forgotten what democracy means, at least in a technical sense of the definition of “the rule of the people.” His animosity and vitriol—well-informed and well-intentioned as it may be—for the current political situation is not the predominant will of the people. Quite simply, if the majority of Americans want a more harsh neoliberal democracy—or then, abdicate their civic responsibility and let others choose the country’s future—that is what we will have. The structures of government and the constitution are that difficult to usurp.

As a progressive, but politically minded educator, I do wonder what is the aim and audience of this work. Even if you were to take everything Giroux says (and has said) as gospel, the means of getting from where we are to where he wants to be are unclear. Giroux is certainly attuned to the changes in the political arena and the manipulation of words and meanings for political purposes. However, considering the current political environment, this tract is unlikely to win over anyone not already troubled by our drift or stampede—take your pick—away from the gains of the New Deal and the Civil Rights era.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2324-2327
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11369, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 9:41:19 AM

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About the Author
  • Aaron Cooley
    Texas A&M University-Kingsville
    E-mail Author
    AARON COOLEY holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has mentored, tutored, and taught students in a range of diverse educational settings and previously worked at the North Carolina General Assembly. Aaron is dedicated to improving the educational and economic opportunities of all Americans through innovative ideas in public policy. His writing has appeared in Essays in Education, Education Review, Educational Theory, Educational Studies (Forthcoming), Journal of Popular Culture, and the Political Studies Review.
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