You are hereTruthout: Occupy Wall Street's Battle Against American-Style Authoritarianism

Truthout: Occupy Wall Street's Battle Against American-Style Authoritarianism


Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people.
        -Theodor Adorno

-by Henry A. Giroux

October 26, 2011- The Occupy Wall Street movement is raising new questions about an emerging form of authoritarianism in the United States, one that threatens the collective survival of vast numbers of people, not through overt physical injury or worse, but through an aggressive assault on social provisions that millions of Americans depend on. For those pondering the meaning of the pedagogical and political challenges being addressed by the protesters, it might be wise to revisit a classic essay by German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno titled "Education After Auschwitz," in which he tries to grapple with the relationship between education and morality in light of the horrors perpetrated in the name of authoritarianism and its industrialization of death.

Adorno's essay, first published in 1967, asserted that the demands and questions raised by Auschwitz had barely penetrated the consciousness of peoples' minds such that the conditions that made it possible continued, as he put it, "largely unchanged." Mindful that the societal pressures that produced the Holocaust had far from receded in post-war Germany, and that under such circumstances this act of barbarism could easily be repeated in the future, Adorno argued that "the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds" must be made visible. For Adorno, the need for a general public to come to grips with the challenges arising from the reality of Auschwitz was both a political question and a crucial educational consideration. Realizing that education before and after Auschwitz in Germany was separated by an unbridgeable chasm, Adorno wanted to invoke the promise of education through the moral and political imperative of never allowing the genocide witnessed at Auschwitz to be repeated.

For such a goal to become meaningful and realizable, Adorno contended that education had to be addressed as both an emancipatory promise and a democratic project. Adorno urged educators to teach students how to be critical so they could learn to resist those ideologies, needs, social relations and discourses that lead back to a politics where authority is simply obeyed and the totally administered society reproduces itself through a mixture of state force and orchestrated consensus.

Adorno keenly understood that education is at the center of any viable notion of democratic politics, and that such education takes place in a variety of spheres both within and outside of schools. Freedom means being able to think critically and act courageously, even when confronted with the limits of one's knowledge. Without such thinking, critical debate and dialogue degenerates into slogans, while politics, disassociated from the search for justice, becomes a power grab, or simply hackneyed.

What is partly evident in the Occupy Wall Street movement is not just a cry of collective indignation over economic and social injustice that pose threats to human kind, but a critical expression of how young people and others can use new technologies, social formations and forms of civil disobedience to reactivate both the collective imagination and develop a new language for addressing the interrelated modes of domination that have been poisoning democratic politics  since the 1970s. At the same time, the movement is using the dominant media to focus on injustices through a theoretical and political lens that counters the legitimation of casino capitalism in the major cultural apparatuses. The rationality, values and power relations that inform hypercapitalism are now recognized as a new and dangerous mode of authoritarianism.

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