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Raising Democracy from the (Un)Dead: A Year-End Reflection

GirouxThe end of the year is always a reflective time, and recently, I saw a truly inspiring Bill Moyers interview with cultural critic and scholar Henry A. Giroux, whose insightful critique of the state of democracy and reflections on what is possible for its future remind me why I originally wanted to work in public engagement. Though the book discussed in the interview, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, sets up a rather bleak premise, we at NCDD see our own vision and values in Giroux’s analysis of what democracy could be like – if we work for it. The interview is deep and rich with insight, and we highly recommend that you give it a look.

I’ve pulled out a few key insights that Giroux shares below, but you can watch the full (fairly long) interview on that originally aired on Moyers & Company by clicking here or read the full transcript of the interview here.

The Crisis in Democracy

From the beginning of the exchange, Giroux’s belief in the importance of real democracy comes through loud and clear:

Moyers: There’s a great urgency in your recent books and in the essays you’ve been posting online, a fierce urgency, almost as if you are writing with the doomsday clock ticking. What accounts for that?

Giroux: Well, for me democracy is too important to allow it to be undermined in a way in which every vital institution that matters from the political process to the schools to the inequalities that, to the money being put into politics, I mean, all those things that make a democracy viable are in crisis.

And the problem is the crisis… should be accompanied by a crisis of ideas, [the problem is] that the stories that are being told about democracy are really about the swindle of fulfillment. The swindle of fulfillment is what the reigning elite, in all of their diversity, now tell the American people, if not the rest of the world: that democracy is an excess. [Democracy] doesn’t really matter anymore, that we don’t need social provisions, we don’t need the welfare state, that the survival of the fittest is all that matters, that in fact society should mimic those values in ways that suggest a new narrative.

That narrative, Giroux continues, offers us “the most fraudulent definition of what a democracy should be,” and it is encompassed in “a vicious set of assumptions” which include

…the notion that profit making is the essence of democracy, the notion that economics is divorced from ethics, the notion that the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism, the notion that the welfare state is a pathology, that any form of dependency basically is disreputable and needs to be attacked… How do you get a discourse governing the country that seems to suggest that anything public… [even] public engagement, is a pathology?

Many of us have met resistance or been discouraged in this work because of that discourse of “engagement as pathology.” In many venues civic venues and levels of government, we find those who are skeptical of efforts to involve average people in government and decision making and want to leave things up to experts and professionals instead. This skepticism seems to be based on the internalization of many of our officials and institutions of the “vicious set of assumptions” about democracy the Giroux describes. In far too many cases, especially when it comes to finances, we hear arguments that claim government couldn’t possibly solve difficult problems and involve the public at the same time.

Yet we are involved in this line of work because we know that everyday people working together and forming real relationships is the heart of a robust democracy, and we are committed to helping that work and those relationships thrive. But as Giroux’s “zombie” metaphor suggest, the politics we see today are not those that nurture a healthy civic life:

Moyers: My favorite of your many books is this one, “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism.” Why that metaphor, “zombie” politics?

Giroux: Because it’s a politics that’s informed by the machinery of social and civil death… The zombie metaphor is a way to sort of suggest that democracy is losing its oxygen… It’s losing its spirit. It’s losing its ability to speak to itself in ways that would span the human spirit and the human possibility for justice and equality…

[Zombie politics are] a death machine because, in my estimation, it does everything it can to kill any vestige of a robust democracy. It turns people into zombies, people who basically are so caught up with surviving that they become like the walking dead, you know, they lose their sense of agency…

This lost sense of agency in our politics and civic life is real. We all know people who explain their non-participation in civic life or public decision making processes because they think that nothing will change, that the system is too corrupt, or otherwise have the general feeling that “participating won’t make a difference, so why bother?”  That lost sense of agency – and the lack of visible examples where small groups of average citizens do make a difference – is a big part of what NCDD and our field is working to shift every day as we engage and empower average people.

But it’s more than a lost feeling of agency. There has also been an actual erosion of what we know as democracy in our country.

I think that it is crucial for our field to reflect on and take seriously what Giroux is saying here about what he calls “casino capitalism” – our very economic system – as an active threat to democracy. He warns that this casino capitalism

…doesn’t just believe it can control the economy. It believes that it can govern all of social life. That’s different.

That means it has to have its tentacles into every aspect of everyday life. Everything from the way schools are run to the way prisons are outsourced to the way the financial services are run to the way in which people have access to health care, it’s an all-encompassing, it seems to me, political, cultural, educational apparatus.

And it basically has nothing to do with expanding the meaning and the substance of democracy itself.

[Casino capitalism] believes that social bonds not driven by market values are basically bonds that we should find despicable….we have an economic system that in fact has caused a crisis in democracy. What we haven’t addressed is the underlying consensus that informs that crisis.

In my opinion, Giroux is right: the drive to treat more and more sectors of society as markets that must create ever higher profits has encroached on so many venues of civic and political life that it has pushed the public out of spaces that are essential for real democratic governance. So we are left with a zombie democracy, complete with “people” – that is, corporations – that don’t have souls and can’t feel pain, but can and do hold more sway in our elections and government policy than flesh and blood citizens. And this creates a vicious cycle that feeds the real and perceived loss of civic agency.

Our Opportunity

One of the challenges of overcoming the “machinery of social and civic death” that Giroux lays out is the challenge of finding ways to “develop cultural apparatuses that can offer a new vocabulary for people, where questions of freedom and justice and the problems that we’re facing can be analyzed in ways that reach mass audiences in accessible language.”

In many ways, this challenge lands squarely in our lap as a individuals and as a professional field. The way I see it, a field like ours has unique potential to initiate momentum that can reverse this shift and, in a way, raise politics from the “undead” and keep our democracy from being completely bought out by casino capitalism. But this won’t happen by accident, we have to intentionally decide to shift that momentum.

The work of dialogue, deliberation, and public engagement is about connecting people to each other and their visions for their communities in real ways. Much of it is an outgrowth of the humanistic values and spirit of democracy, what Giroux calls “the human possibility for justice and equality.”

And in the coming year, it seems more important to me than ever that we reflect on how to make questions of justice, freedom, and equality more central in our work.

This may force us to struggle with concepts of neutrality and norms of professionalism that animate parts of our field, as talk of justice, freedom, and equality often naturally tend toward advocacy. But in my opinion, we should be struggling with ourselves about what it means for professionals in roles and work such as ours to also advocate for democracy itself, because if something doesn’t change, we may not have much of a genuine democracy left to work for. Only by continuing to ask ourselves tough questions can we find productive ways of imagining what it might look like for our field to play a role in staving off a zombie apocalypse for our democracy.

These questions, in Giroux’s mind, are posed by the actual state of affairs we are in.

We have to acknowledge the realities that bear down on us, but it seems to me that if we really want to live in a world and be alive with compassion and justice, then we need educated hope. We need a hope that recognizes the problems and doesn’t romanticize them, and also recognizes the need for vision, for social organizations, for strategies. We need institutions that provide the formative culture that give voice to those visions and those ideas.

Giroux adds that what is missing now “…are those alternative public spheres, those cultural formations – what I call a formative culture – that can bring people together and give those ideas, embody them in both a sense of hope, of vision and the organizations and strategies that would be necessary… to reconstruct a sense of where politics can go.”

I believe that NCDD and the many practitioners, organizations, and indeed the movement that we represent can be thought of as the kind of formative culture that Giroux describes, and that we are capable of building the kind of institutions he calls for – those that can help people work through questions of justice, freedom, and democracy in our society in a way that is accessible, that will give loud voice to visions for a better future, and that can reconstruct a sense of where politics can go.

Though we clearly have a long way to go, I think that we still have reason to keep a firm grasp on this “educated hope” – hope that recognizes challenges and takes them seriously, but that feeds the growth of visions and strategies to create the changes we need.

As we transition into 2014, I invite you to reflect with me on how we can make this work more about developing strategies for confronting and overcoming the real threats to democracy posed by zombie politics and casino capitalism. I also invite you to share in the hope that we can actually do it.

Giroux leaves us with a vision for what is needed for that change: “The real changes are going to come in creating movements that are longstanding, that are organized, that basically take questions of governance and policy seriously and begin to spread out and become international. That is going to have to happen.”

Here’s to making it happen. Happy New Year.

Roshan Bliss on LinkedinRoshan Bliss on Twitter
Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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  1. Steve Byers says:

    Thanks for this post. I also work with a variety of community groups and nonprofits, helping to design and host meaningful conversations about issues that matter. Topics include grassroots leadership, access to health care in rural communities, health wisdom in immigrant communities, recreation for people with disabilities, among others. Would love to connect with you if you find yourself in Seattle…

  2. John Eley says:

    I think that there is a fundamental confusion here between advocacy of a process of democratic deliberation and a view that there needs to be basic substantive outcomes relating to justice, freedom and equality. It seems to me that you are very close to saying that if we do not have an outcome that you and Giroux would see has just that it must mean that we do not have democracy. You may be confusing the processes of governing via more deliberation with a set of outcomes that you do not like or that you would prefer. The great virtue of deliberative democracy movement thus far is that it has maintained a stance of neutrality as to preferred outcomes. If it becomes simply another means of promoting a given set of stated objectives it will lose its appeal and legitimacy. True democratic deliberators value process over outcomes and want all views represented. What emerges is “justice” for the deliberators, not justice per se or justice from a narrow point of view. Perhaps we can encourage deliberations about what is just, but we cannot do this and at the same time determine in advance that what we now have is unjust or undemocratic. We must keep our eye on the prize of deliberation not the goal of substantive outcomes narrowly defined. All we can do is to hope for justice while trusting the process.

  3. John Backman says:

    Roshan, I so appreciate your call for justice (and the article in general), AND I am wondering how a self-identified conservative would respond to it. It seems as though, in our field, we so often use words that conservatives find difficult (even, if I recall correctly, the word “dialogue” itself!). Would conservatives uphold your call for justice, freedom, and equality, or would they see these words as overly leftist? If the latter, how would they prefer to see the discussion recast?

    Somehow I want to connect this to John Eley’s comment, but the connection eludes me right now. John, do you care to respond?

    • John Eley says:

      John B.
      You wonder how to connect your comments to mine. I guess that the best way is to make it clear that I am one who understands that justice is a very contested concept and thus a good one for extended deliberation that does not start from a preconceived outcome. I caution all who support deliberative democracy to attempt to be as neutral as possible (and what this means we can discuss). My point is that too close an identification of deliberative democracy with progressive policies, such as universal health care my work against the deliberations that we need to engender.

  4. Roshan Bliss says:

    Hi John E., thanks for sharing your thoughts. I definitely agree that the deliberative democracy movement is to be commended on its neutrality regarding outcomes and that we should encourage more deliberations about what justice would look like in our communities and public policies.
    But what I was trying to get at, and what I think Giroux is saying, is that the growth we have seen of political influence that money and large corporations jeopardizes the ability for deliberative democracy and related practices to have a real effect. For example, if we spent lots of time, effort, and resources cultivating an effective and inclusive participatory process for a major city to come to a decision on some key environmental policy or regulation, only to have a major energy company launch a very well-funded lobbying and public relations effort to reverse that decision 6 months later because it reduced their bottom line (an entirely feasible scenario, in my opinion, and one that would be legal given the Citizens United decision and related policies), I think that would be an unjust outcome, and I believe Giroux would agree. So although such an outcome would have been external to our process – we could have done everything right on our side, and still ended up with a result that undercut our work and the will of the hypothetical city’s citizens – it is still very much of concern to us.
    The fact that such a scenario is possible, and maybe even likely on certain issues, should prompt us to take a step back and consider what it means for our field and how we should respond. I’m simply saying in this that there is space and, I think, a need for us to have a sort of meta-deliberation on what kind of impact deliberative and participatory practices can actually have in a society where a few wealthy people or corporate “people” can undermine real democratic processes on a whim. We can trust OUR processes, but if the larger societal democratic process is hollowed out, our work could become moot.
    If the kind of meta-deliberation I describe leads some of us to conclude that the process of governing via more deliberation is in danger of being made impossible or irrelevant because of the undue influence of money, it would be natural to want something to be done to see to it that real democratic processes can’t be bought out so easily – or at all. And the onus of doing “something” would fall at least partially to those in our field – thus the comments on advocacy.
    Maybe I am, as you say, determining in advance that what we have now is undemocratic. But there are many in our nation today – Giroux included – who would say that is a foregone conclusion. At the very least, the question of whether or not what we have now is undemocratic would be a good think to see being debated in our field. Because after all, if our society is in fact undemocratic, then the legitimacy and need for our jobs as democracy practitioners are at risk. And I don’t think that such a risk is something to be taken lying down.

  5. Roshan Bliss says:

    As for your comment, John B. (thanks for the kind words), I think you are definitely right to raise the question of how conservatives would feel about such language. But regarding how they might like to see such discussions recast, I can’t say, as I’m not a conservative. I suspect that you would be hard pressed to find many conservatives who would tell they don’t support justice, freedom, and equality, but these terms would mean something different to them than what they mean to people on the left.
    The issue is one that I see recurring a lot in this work, and I haven’t come up with good ways to resolve it. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to grapple with it as a field and possibly gain a bit more clarity on how we can approach it as practitioners.

  6. John Eley says:

    Roshan
    The role of money in politics is a function of two key variables, other than the obvious one of the cost of campaigns. The first variable is the rise of an interventionist regulatory state capable of impacting either positively or negatively on the bottom line of companies or even the way that they do business. The greater the role of the state the higher the stakes in any effort to influence the government and the greater the incentive to exert corporate influence. Also remember that Citizens United allowed for greater spending by unions who are pursuing their own narrow interests as much as corporations are.

    The second variable is the excess of electoral democracy. The rise of primaries has opened the door for extremists of all stripes, including those very favorable to corporate interests and those bitterly opposed. This has created a requirement or an opportunity for corporations and unions to intervene in the electoral process much earlier that was the case in the past.

    We may hope that effective efforts at deliberative democracy, especially those that can engage representatives of the corporate person can help in diluting the power of the state, especially if the deliberations can provide insights into the economic distortions created by state interventions and to the political distortions created by too many primaries.

    Having said this I want to stress once again that I believe that it is very important for you as as a person who has a bright future in the field of deliberation to avoid getting type cast as just another liberal reformer who wants to use deliberation as a means for attacking corporate power and the conservatives. If I read you correctly you attach great value to deliberative democracy as a process. If so, there is much to be done in the development of greater understanding of the various forms of democracy as developed in the scholarly literature by thinkers such as Robert Dahl and Larry Diamond. I recommend that you study that literature carefully and avoid being hooked on advocates such as Giroux who may not be sufficiently grounded in democratic theory. If you can take a step back and speak more to the whys and wherefores of deliberative democracy you should make many useful contributions. Thanks for being so concerned with these issues.

    • John Backman says:

      John, something in your last comment stopped me dead, and I want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly. It was this:

      <>

      Are you saying that a smaller, more limited government (a conservative cornerstone, to loop back to my original comment) would lessen the influence of those currently with power and resources–because there’d be fewer people to influence? Is that an assertion that a conservative would typically make? (And why have I never thought of this before? Fascinating thought.)

      • John Backman says:

        Let’s try this again. The quote in question, which I’d intended to appear in my last reply, was:

        “The greater the role of the state the higher the stakes in any effort to influence the government and the greater the incentive to exert corporate influence.”

      • John Eley says:

        John
        My point is simple. Governments spend money and regulate activities in ways that create winners and losers because government cannot avoid redistributing wealth by taking from some and giving to others. Big governments produce big wins and big losses. This raises the stakes for corporations who may lose and for those who may gain. Thus intervention in the political process via the expenditure of money for campaigns makes sense from a business perspective.

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