A pedagogy of the depressed?
What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there a growing feeling of despair creeping through our classrooms? What has gone wrong with education if it cannot give hope to people in depressing realities? Why can’t education fix the wrongdoings of the past, or fulfil the hopes of the present, or at least give us hope for a better future to come? How can we even continue to think of education and pedagogy' as anything other than a cynical confirmation of privilege in a world rapidly widening the gap between the rich and the steadily growing precarious populations?
These are the worrying questions of a pedagogy of the depressed with which I begin this chapter, together with a growing feeling of urgency and need to fight off despair produced by the dark realities of Trumpism, Putinism and Brexiters alike. That is, I think it is time to face the dispersed but all too frequent signs that the time of democracy might be over. At least, democracy' may be losing its meaning as national projects of solidarity over difference, as defining characteristics of strong, self-defining publics, and instead increasingly becoming, if not altogether meaningless, at least severely and profoundly' challenged to its core.
The political project commonly called neoliberalism has won it all, has effectively' destroyed the idea of society' and the public as something other than individualism and competition of all against all in the market, and by so doing seems to have severely' damaged the very' social fabric that makes democratic life possible (Fraser, 1990; Warner, 2002; Mouffe, 2005; Lynch, 2006; Butler, 2015; Ranciere, 2007a; Berardi, 2017).
To be precise, neoliberal ideology seems to have effectively destroyed the idea that democracy needs popular sovereignty' for its institutions to be democratic, and not just performing procedural rituals within bureaucratic logic and logistics but otherwise empty. That popular sovereignty is needed for the very liveability of democratic life itself (Butler, 2015).
Moreover, a consequence of reducing politics and democracy to rituals is that a vast part of the population, dependent on a healthy society for a liveable life, are left behind only to be picked up by right-wing populism, if not plain fascism. Populism and neofascism now give meaning to those whose lives are left behind, the surplus whose only value is their votes: filling the space of nostalgia with fictional national unity in history, over generations, fixated in eternity by land and blood (Arnstad, 2016).
I think this is what we are witnessing today when, to take just one example, a quarter of the population of a developed welfare state such as Sweden, a country with rapidly increasing social and economic inequality (OECD, 2015), vote for a fascist party with its roots in Nazism (Wodak, Khosravi & Mral, 2013). Sweden is in no way alone among the Nordic countries; and most European countries, including the forces behind Brexit in the UK, all have a strong presence of authoritarian, neofascist, right-wing populism in the political landscape.
I also think that the destruction of the publicness of democratic public life that follows in the wake of the neoliberal flooding of the totality of social and psychic life (Berardi, 2017), and the consequent rise of the extreme right, is what we need to counteract by developing a pedagogy of the depressed. This needs to be done without delay, I think, in North and South America as well as Europe, if not the world, not only as radical democrats but as educationalists, as they are interconnected forces of energy.
A pedagogy of and for the depressed needs to redirect the self-consuming anger of being left behind, without repeating the instrumental fallacy of the neoliberal educational project, and without denying the rational ground for that anger.
What’s wrong with instrumentalism?
There is an intrinsic relation between education and democracy, and if democracy is over, so is education as the making of the public, the transferring of private interests into public concerns (Biesta, 2017; Masschelein & Simons, 2013). To be precise, the challenge to a democratic way of life in and through education is the negation of the very publicness of the public (as well as its value) that follows from instrumentalism, since instrumentalism refutes the idea of the public as something more than as a means to an end in a distant future.
That is, in its extreme form, instrumentalism in politics is the total reduction of the value of the social and an overemphasis of the people as a single unit, and the people as a means to a higher end outside the realm and value of the diversity of actual people in social life. The most extreme instrumentalism in politics is therefore fascism, in which the people are only a means to a higher end, the ultimate morality of the nation, reducing every individual life’s value to a measurement of fulfilling the final single meaning represented by the nation itself. The single life is worthless as anything other than as a means for the realization of the fascist highest value (Amstad, 2016; Poulantzas, 1979; Traverso, 2019).
When it comes to the neoliberal political project, the individual is reduced to a means for the aggressive competition that makes up the market, predefined within the political project of authoritarian capitalism, or what Giroux (2018) calls neoliberal fascism. Education informed by political instrumentalism in such a context is to guarantee a steady production of (economic) value through aggressive competition, but not to educate the values of a democratic way of life (Dewey, 1916) beyond the self-referencing framework of capitalism.
Instrumentalism therefore suits the neoliberal political project just fine: it is its very understanding of education. Instrumentalism is what gives education meaning within the neoliberal political project, and reduces education to a system of schooling, itself a particular form of value production; to the distribution of (encyclopaedic) knowledge as a measurable and quantifiable value across the social spectrum, pairing such value with values circulating in the capitalist economy.
The very meaning of the student in such a system of schooling is to be understood through his or her quantifiable accumulation of knowledge, through talent, skills and abilities, and as such coded as the currency of the school market. Quantifiable, measurable knowledge accumulated by talented students with (perceived natural) abilities and skills are all categories within a particular economy of schooling, defining being itself within such an economy as more or less valuable for its effectiveness and productivity.
The profound problem with instrumentalism in education is, in other words, that instrumentalism not only creates self-referencing frameworks, it can itself be understood as a property of such frames, but claustrophobic (predefined and closed) realities as well. Self-referencing frameworks make change impossible and reduce education to effective processes of adjustment to that which is already given, rather than breaking out from it. There is no breathing possible, the educational impulse of radical change is dead, forever.
It means, among other things, that if a society is increasingly repressive, intolerant and anti-democratic, schooling in such a society would not be able to be anything else than making adjustments to such forces more effectively. Also, in cases where the goals of schooling are to promote a more democratic society, if such goals are to be reached through instrumentalism, they are turned in effect to their opposite.
That is because instrumentalism has nothing at all to do with human value. It has nothing to do with the relationality of the social and its excess, nor what is valuable for us in our lives; instead it is based on the rationality of Homo Jaber, that is, on the rationality of using tools and measuring how useful those tools are in doing its work (von Wright, 1988). Human relations cannot be reduced to tools of effectiveness, without stopping being human altogether.