- Young People Are No Longer at Risk: They are the Risk1
Henry Giroux’s latest book, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability, is his latest contribution to theorizing, critiquing, and challenging the confluence of militarization, corporatization, and right-wing ideology that has characterized U.S. society post 9/11. One of the leading theorists of cultural studies, Giroux has written over forty books that study the connections between political practices, mass media, schooling (both formal and informal), and market fundamentalism. Among the series of books Giroux has published in recent years are Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism: Global Uncertainty and the Challenge of the New Media (2006), Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (2006), The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (2007), and Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (2008). Each of these, like the text to be reviewed here, focuses on a central concern—higher education, raced biopolitics, media spectacles, neoliberalism—but that central concern is understood within a larger matrix of interconnected forces that have all combined in recent years to create a major threat to the future of democracy in this nation.
In Youth in a Suspect Society, Giroux focuses on the ways that U.S. society has transformed its understanding of youth from promise and potential to suspect and commodity. As Giroux explains in the preface, “This book develops a new set of categories and vocabulary for understanding the changing conditions of youth within the relentless expansion of a global market society, one that punishes all youth by treating them largely as commodities” (xii). But the problems that youth face within this market economy don’t end with commodification: that is, sadly, only the beginning. Giroux explains that, as the market demands the erosion of the social state, youth become subject to a whole host of punitive measures “governing them through a logic of punishment, surveillance, and control” (xii). In conjunction with these practices, Giroux maps the educational force of a culture that not only is complicit [End Page 317] with these practices but also seems itself to encourage them, and he takes to task educators themselves for failing to provide much-needed resistance to these practices. As he puts it, “there are too few commentaries about how the media, schools, and other educational sites in the culture provide the ideas, values, and ideologies that legitimate the conditions that enable young people to become either commodified, criminalized, or made disposable” (xii). In this way, the central aim of Giroux’s book is to link the biopolitical practices that regulate the lives of young people with the pedagogical practices that make such biopolitical disposability not only acceptable but even desired.
Building on his many years researching educational practices and developing a theory of critical pedagogy, Giroux’s book describes the dire situation for today’s youth. While much of Giroux’s career has been dedicated to calling attention to the social forces that create disenfranchised populations and to encouraging passionate and compassionate responses to the problems of social inequity, one of his principal worries has always been that of youth culture. Influenced by the work of John Dewey and a colleague to Paolo Freire, Giroux’s early career focused on developing a theory of critical pedagogy—that is, the idea that education should focus on modes of teaching that encourage students to ask questions, resist forms of domination, and develop practices of civic agency. And while this problem has been a concern of Giroux’s for decades, this latest book details a series of transformations that have exacerbated and expanded on the previously existing threats to the civic agency of young people.
Arguably the most significant transformation is that of neoliberalism, the free market fundamentalist economic policy that has replaced the capitalist welfare state with progressive intensity since the 1970s. Giroux, along with Pierre Bourdieu, has been one of the foremost theorists of the ideology and public pedagogy of neoliberal practices. In recent years, a number of theorists (i.e., Agamben, Hardt and Negri, Mbembe) have also begun to expand on Michel Foucault’s theory of biopolitics—the theory of...