In a Nutshell
In many ways, Youth in a Suspect Society is motivated by a sense of outrage and a sense of hope.
While youth have always represented an ambiguous category, they have within the last thirty years been under assault in unprecedented ways. The book identifies a number of forces—including unfettered free-market ideology, a dehumanizing mode of consumerism, the rise of the racially skewed punishing state, and the attack on public and higher education—that have come together to pose a threat to young people. The combined threat of these forces is so extreme it can be accurately described as a “war on youth.”
Since the late 1970s, young people have been transformed from a generation that embodied hope for the future to a generation of suspects in a society destroyed by the merging of a market-driven corporate state and the increasingly powerful punishing state. Central to this claim is the idea that the current generation of young people is no longer viewed as an important social investment or as a marker for the state of democracy and the moral life of the nation. Youth are now under assault by a number of forces, the most widespread and insidious of which are market-driven forces and pedagogies of consumption that increasingly penetrate every aspect of young people’s lives so as both to commodify them and to undercut their possibilities for critical thought, civic responsibility, and engaged citizenship.
Moreover, as the welfare state has been gradually dismantled, youth have also become the objects of a more direct and damaging assault waged on a number of political, economic, and cultural fronts. Young people are increasingly subject to modes of governance, education, punishment, and control largely modeled after prisons and the dictates of a youth-crime-governing complex that increasingly subjects them to harsh discipline, while criminalizing more and more aspects of their behavior. From the schools to the streets, poor minority youth are subject to modes of control based on crude and degrading forms of punishment, including random drug tests, locker searches, racial targeting, surveillance, and zero tolerance laws.
Youth in a Suspect Society argues that only by understanding the unique merging of casino capitalism and the punishing state—and the reach of this new social formation in shaping everyday life—does it become possible to grasp the contours of a new historical period in which a war is being waged against youth.
The book also considers the role that academics and institutions of higher education may take in addressing the crisis of youth and its relationship to politics and critical education. A particular focus is on how intellectuals and other cultural workers can intervene to stop this assault on youth through a politics that both rejects the equation of capitalism and democracy and connects youth to a future that embodies the promises of an aspiring democracy.
The Wide Angle
Youth in a Suspect Society takes as its major organizing idea the notion that youth are under assault in ways that are entirely new. My assumption is that young people now face a world that is far more dangerous than it was at any other time in recent history. This assault is developed through the related concepts of “soft war” and “hard war.”
The soft war analyzes the changing conditions of youth within the relentless expansion of a global market society that punishes all youth by treating them largely as markets and commodities. This low intensity war is waged through the educational force of a culture that not only commercializes every aspect of kids’ lives but also uses the Internet, cell phones, and various social networks along with the new media technologies to address young people as markets and consumers in ways that are more direct and expansive. The processes of creating market-driven values, desires, and identities bypass adults, families, and traditional modes of mediation and enter into an intimate relationship with young people.
The hard war is more serious and dangerous for young people and refers to the harshest elements, values, and dictates of a growing youth-crime complex that increasingly governs poor minority youth through a logic of punishment, surveillance, and control. For example, the imprint of the youth-crime complex is most evident in the increasingly popular practice of organizing schools through disciplinary practices that closely resemble the culture of prisons. In this instance, even as the corporate state is in financial turmoil, it is transformed into a punishing state, and certain segments of the youth population become the object of a new mode of governance based on the crudest forms of disciplinary control.
The book also analyzes neoliberalism (or free-market capitalism as it is called in some quarters) not merely as an economic system, but also as a mode of education in which market values supplant civic values, and the obligations of citizenship are reduced to the practice of consuming, the accumulation of capital, and the endless disposing of goods and people rendered as redundant and excess.
Central to Youth in a Suspect Society are the concepts of biopolitics and disposability, which suggest a new form of politics and a more vicious element of market-driven cruelty. Biopolitics suggests that, as the social state has been gutted, politics is no longer about the dream of securing a better life, but is now primarily centered on fighting to survive. Drawing upon the work of Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Zygmunt Bauman, and other theorists, Youth in a Suspect Society focuses on a form of economic Darwinism that has fundamentally transformed the meaning of politics. Politics is no longer understood as participating in and shaping those institutions and values that are central to both the promise of democracy and the possibility of living a good life. Instead, matters of life and death are now the central issue of politics.
Furthermore, neoliberal biopolitics, with its attack on all things public and the viability of a social state, now views entire populations as disposable, human waste products that are either rendered invisible or subject to the dictates of the criminal justice system. This is especially true for many young people who are considered marginal because they are poor, black, unemployed, or flawed consumers. Poor minority youth have not just been excluded from “the American dream,” but have become utterly redundant and disposable, waste products of a society that no longer considers them of any value. Under such circumstances, matters of survival and disposability, life and death, become central to how we think about and imagine politics.
Over a decade ago I realized that while progressives had a great deal to say about class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, they had almost nothing to say about the crisis of youth and its enormous significance for the analysis of the effects of market fundamentalism, the rise of the punishing state, and the crisis of democracy itself. Similarly, progressives had very little to say about the crucial nature of pedagogy and education in providing a critical and formative culture for talking about the rise of neoliberalism and its culture of disposability. I have tried over the last few years to correct this theoretical and political absence. My books focus on the related crisis of youth and democracy, while at the same time also on the role that academics, public intellectuals, and other cultural workers might play in challenging it.
I have always been concerned about the role that theory might play as a resource in providing both a language and a context for understanding and addressing important social issues. Many narratives in this book are designed to connect peoples’ everyday lives with larger social issues. By entering the book through these narratives, the reader may connect private considerations to larger public problems, and vice versa.
The transformation of the school from an invaluable public good and laboratory for critical learning and engaged citizenship to a containment site modeled after prisons is made clear in a number of narratives concerning the abuse perpetuated in the name of zero tolerance policies. For instance, in Miami a first grader took a table knife to school, using it to rob a classmate of $1 in lunch money. School officials claimed he was facing “possible expulsion and charges of armed robbery.”
In another instance that took place in December 2004, a fourth-grade student at a Philadelphia elementary school was yanked out of class, handcuffed, taken to the police station, and held for eight hours for bringing a pair of 8-inch scissors to school. She had been using the scissors to work on a school project at home. School district officials acknowledged that the young girl was not using the scissors as a weapon or threatening anyone with them, but scissors qualified as a potential weapon under Pennsylvania state law.
Youth in a Suspect Society attempts to provide readers with a language of critique with respect to the crisis facing young people. But it does more. It also offers readers a language of possibility, one that encourages them to analyze critically the role that education, power, and politics might play in providing an alternative and better future for both young people and an aspiring democracy. It is difficult to imagine what it means to fight for the rights of children if we cannot at the same time imagine a different conception of the future, one vastly at odds with a present that can only portend the future as a repeat of itself.
Within this current moment of economic uncertainty and political possibility it is necessary for educators, artists, intellectuals, and others to raise questions and develop rigorous modes of analyses in order to explain how a culture of domestic militarization and economic Darwinism—with its policies of commodification, containment, cruelty, and brutalization—has been able to develop and gain consent from so many people in the United States during the last three decades. And, most importantly, such a challenge suggests developing a new mode of politics and empowering forms of education in which a future of hope and imagination is inextricably connected to the fate of all young people, if not democracy itself.
Under the current insufferable climate of repression and unabated exploitation, young people and communities of color have become the new casualties in an ongoing war against justice, freedom, social citizenship, and democracy. I hope that Youth in a Suspect Society will provide a critical vocabulary by which to understand the current crisis of youth. I also hope that the book convince readers to reject and collectively struggle against a form of biopolitics in which life is considered cheap, markets drive politics, and those who lack resources and opportunities can be considered redundant and ultimately disposable.
At stake here is a set of larger issues: How much longer can a nation ignore those youth who lack the resources and opportunities that were available, although perhaps in a partial and incomplete way, to previous generations? What does it mean when a nation becomes frozen ethically and imaginatively so that it no longer provides its youth with a future of hope and opportunity? And what might it mean for intellectuals who inhabit a wider variety of public spheres to take a stand and to remind themselves that collective problems deserve collective solutions?
What is at risk is not only a generation of young people and adults now considered to be a generation of suspects, but also the very possibility of deepening and expanding democracy.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. He has taught at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio, and Penn State University. His most recent books include: The University in Chains: Confronting the military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Paradigm, 2007); Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Paradigm, 2008); Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave 2009).
© 2010 Henry A. Giroux