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Rethinking Privatization: Henry Giroux's the'Terror of Neo Liberalism'

When people talk about privatization, they’re usually referring to governments selling off state assets (ostensibly) to the highest bidder. But in his cultural studies based take on neo-liberalism, The Terror of Neo-Liberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, Henry Giroux takes an entirely different tack. For him, privatization is the process of transforming social problems into individual problems.
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When people talk about privatization, they’re usually referring to governments selling off state assets (ostensibly) to the highest bidder. But in his cultural studies based take on neo-liberalism, The Terror of Neo-Liberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, Henry Giroux takes an entirely different tack. For him, privatization is the process of transforming social problems into individual problems.

Each chapter takes up this form of privatization in a different area: militarization, education, the prison-industrial complex, but the one that grabbed my attention most was his treatment of (neo-)racism. Giroux’s fundamental idea is that the discourse around racism goes a long way towards masking structural institutionalized racism.

In contrast to ‘old racism’ which was crude, outspoken, and imminently visible, ‘neo-racism’ operates through its subtlety. The ideas of the civil rights movement have been appropriated in a new form of racism in which it is taboo to bring race up. Racism in this scheme will go away if we just ignore race; the problem, obviously, is that racism is structural and that racial blindness simply constitutes turning a blind eye. Racism in this sense is privatized: it is something that individuals either are or aren’t. Its structural nature is thus concealed.

The aim of Giroux’s book is to illustrate the cultural foundations of neo-liberalism. His emphasis is on what he calls ‘public pedagogy’: basically just his reinvention of the classic sociological concept of socialization. He argues that neo liberalism operates through a comprehensive set of ‘pedagogies’ including schools, tv, movies, video games, advertising (all the usual culprits). In sum he says that through all these mediums we are taught individualism, consumerism, racism (he doesn’t mention sexism, and in fact his entire book is surprisingly gender-blind even though all his concepts could equally and compellingly be applied to gender themes).

This is something that has come up pretty frequently in conversations I’ve had recently about education as a means of resistance. I think, and I imagine Giroux would agree, that without a presence in popular culture, it is impossible to teach anti-capitalist ideas, and that any attempt to do so in the class room would amount to low-grade brain washing. While formal education certainly has a role to play (I for one wouldn’t be writing this without mine) – and Giroux dedicates one chapter to what this role is – alone it cannot compete with the all embracing lessons we learn through culture.

The power of neo-liberalism is that it is not simply an economic model; it has its roots in culture. One idea I took from the book that Giroux doesn’t really explore is that neo-liberalism’s operation in the public sphere makes challenges and resistance to the ideology in the public sphere not an idle luxury, but essential. Rather than being limited to the ivory towers, anti-capitalist/racist/sexist/globalization critical perspectives are desperately needed across the board. If neo-liberalism’s power rests in its cultural omni-presence and inescapability, a public alternative is essential to creating a ‘public pedagogy’ of resistance.

Just to give a heads up, I’ll add that Giroux’s writing is not great. His long impenetrable sentences make heavy going, and this book will do little to democratize critical perspectives, despite it’s author’s call for more accessible texts. Bah!