Ecstacy drug reborn as medicine

How MDMA is being used to treat trauma

Ecstacy isn’t just for fun anymore: the FDA says it provides real hope for treating PTSD

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

On Nov. 30 the FDA approved a Phase III clinical trial to confirm the effectiveness of treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with MDMA, also known as Ecstasy.

This news appeared in headlines throughout the world, as it represents an important – yet somewhat unorthodox – advance in PTSD treatment.

However, the media have largely been referring to Ecstasy – the street name for this drug – as the treatment in this trial, rather than MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine). This can lead to misunderstanding, as recreational Ecstasy use is a highly stigmatized behavior. Using this terminology may further misconceptions about the study drug and its uses.

While Ecstasy is in fact a common street name for MDMA, what we call Ecstasy has changed dramatically since it became a prevalent recreational drug. Ecstasy now has a very different meaning – socially and pharmacologically.

Ecstasy tablets.
Drug Enforcement Agency Media Library

Social misunderstanding

It is understandable why the media have referred to this drug as Ecstasy rather than MDMA. Not only has much of the public at least heard of Ecstasy (and would not recognize MDMA), but this also increases shock value and readership.

But referring to a therapeutic drug by its street name (such as Ecstasy) is misleading – especially since MDMA is known to be among the most popular illicit drugs used at nightclubs and dance festivals. This leads some to assume that street drugs are being promoted and provided to patients, perhaps in a reckless manner.

About 80-85 percent of high school seniors and young adults disapprove of someone even trying Ecstasy once or twice. But stigmatizing attitudes tend to be much harsher than mere disapproval.

I investigated stigma toward Ecstasy users, and among young adults (age 18-25) who reported no lifetime use of the drug, many reported strong negative feelings toward those who use Ecstasy.

“Ecstasy” is in fact often used to refer to MDMA, but a lot of Ecstasy in the U.S. often contains little to no MDMA. While many assume the term Ecstasy means or at least implies MDMA, others believe (or know) that Ecstasy tends to be an adulterated drug when purchased “on the street.”

Pharmacological misunderstanding: A brief history of drug purity

When Ecstasy boomed in popularity in the early 1980s, it tended to consist of pure MDMA, or sometimes its chemical sister MDA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine). But after MDMA became illegal in the U.S. in 1985, purity began to decrease.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, drugs such as cocaine, ketamine and methamphetamine were common adulterants in Ecstasy.

As a party drug, many people didn’t know or even care that ecstasy was supposed to be MDMA, but others specifically sought pure MDMA, rather than adulterated products. Demand grew. While pills said to be pure MDMA were certainly marketed and sold throughout the 1990s, more expensive Ecstasy in powder form (sold in capsules) slowly grew in demand. Within a few years this exploded into what we know now as “Molly.”

Molly is commonly marketed as being pure MDMA. But in recent years we have found that Molly is often the furthest thing from pure MDMA. Synthetic cathinones, also known as “bath salts,” appear to be the most common adulterants or outright replacements.

Ecstasy-related deaths

Deaths related to Ecstasy use appear to have increased in recent years, but many of these deaths appear to have been largely dependent on environmental conditions. MDMA can raise blood pressure and interfere with regulation of body temperature, which can certainly make it dangerous, especially in large doses and to those with preexisting conditions.

But what we often fail to consider is that Ecstasy-related deaths have tended to occur after hours of dancing – often in very hot conditions (such as crowded nightclubs or at festivals in 85 degree Fahrenheit or higher temperature), without adequate rest or proper hydration, or both.

Would these deaths have occurred without Ecstasy? Probably not. But most of these outcomes were very much dependent on extreme environmental conditions.

Many deaths in the U.S. related to Ecstasy or Molly use have also involved co-use of drugs such as alcohol, or unintentional use of “bath salts” or other adulterants, or a combination. In Europe, however, deaths have been increasing due to use of very high-potency pills (over 200 mg).

Extreme environmental conditions, adulterants, use of high-potency Ecstasy products, and ignorance about drug effects are all potential recipes for disaster when Ecstasy is used, especially when harm reduction techniques are not applied.

Is it really appropriate, then, to compare the therapeutic use of MDMA in this study to individuals using illegal, adulterated, or high-potency ecstasy, and dancing for hours in the heat?

The researchers are using pure MDMA, and in low doses. The drug is also used under medical supervision in a safe office, and patients receive medical clearance before entering the trial.

Misconceptions continue

MDMA is by no means a new drug, but misconceptions have continued for decades. MDMA was discovered over a century ago, and the drug’s effects have been researched and documented for decades.

Knowledge about the drug’s potential therapeutic value is nothing new, either. We have known this since the 1970s, but have largely lacked the formal research supporting its efficacy. The drug was administered by thousands of therapists in the early 1980s before it hit the nightclub scene and was made illegal in 1985. Many therapists and advocates fought to keep MDMA legal when it was banned, and some of these fighters – primarily Rick Doblin and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), have continued to fight for decades, to gain approval for clinical trials of MDMA to be conducted.

It’s easy to view MDMA as just a dangerous party drug, but it was used for therapeutic purposes way before it exploded into nightlife. All our lives we’ve been taught illicit drugs are bad, but so few of us know the history of these drugs prior to their criminalization.

We also tend to focus on the negative publicized effects, and many individuals still believe misinformation such that MDMA use puts holes in the brain, drains spinal fluid, or causes Parkinson’s disease.
As drugs like MDMA and psilocybin move back into the spotlight as having therapeutic value, we must understand that while we may see various drugs as having “bad” uses, this doesn’t mean they are “bad” substances. Some of these drugs appear to be very useful in medical or therapeutic contexts.We also often forget to consider that these same stigmatized drugs may also have important medical value. For example, amphetamine has been a drug of abuse since the 1930s, but it is efficacious in treating ADHD under the trade name Adderall. And despite increasing abuse of opioids in the U.S., these pills are still highly efficacious in treating pain. Like opioids and amphetamine, MDMA appears to have its place in medicine.

The Conversation

Joseph Palamar, Assistant Professor of Population Health, New York University Langone Medical Center

Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarist

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made it clear that he liked the uneducated and that once he assumed the presidency, he would appoint a range of incompetent people to high ranking positions that would insure that many people remain poorly educated, illiterate, and impoverished. A few examples make the point.  Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education is a multi-millionaire, has no experience in higher education, supports for-profit charter schools, and is a strong advocate for private school vouchers. Without irony, she has described her role in education as one way to “advance God’s kingdom.”[1] She is anti-union, and her motto for education affirms Trump’s own educational philosophy to “defund, devalue, and privatize.”[2]

Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has never run a federal agency and has no experience in government, policy making, or in public housing and has described housing policy pejoratively as a form of social engineering and a socialist experiment. New York City council member and chair of the city’s Housing and Buildings Committee described Carson’s appointment as “ill-advised, irresponsible and hovers on absurdity.”[3] Carson will run a $48 billion agency that oversees public housing and ensures that low-income families have access to housing that is safe and affordable. He believes people can escape from poverty through hard work alone and has argued that government regulations resemble forms of totalitarian rule comparable to what existed in communist countries.[4]

Andrew F. Puzder, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Labor, has less experience in government “than any secretary since the early 1980s.”[5] He is a critic of worker protections, opposes raising the minimum wage, and appears to share Trump’s disparaging views of women. As the New York Times pointed out, the advertisements that Mr. Pusder’s companies run to “promote its restaurants frequently feature women wearing next to nothing while gesturing suggestively.”[6] When asked about the ads, Mr. Puzder replied “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s is very American.”[7] I am sure Trump, the unchecked misogynist, agrees.

It is hard to believe that this gaggle of religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theory advocates, billionaires, and retrograde anti-communists, who uniformly lack the experience to take on the jobs for which they were nominated, could possibly be viewed as reasonable candidates for top government positions.  As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) cited in The Hill observed “most of Trump’s appointees are “The greatest collection of stooges and cronies and misfits we have ever seen in a presidential administration….Some of these people’s only qualifications for the jobs they are being appointed for is that they have attempted to dismantle and undermine and destroy the very agencies they are now hoping to run.”[8]

What these appointments suggest is that one element of the new authoritarianism is a deep embrace of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, crony capitalism, and a disdain for the institutions that give legitimacy to the social contract and the welfare state. Most of Trump’s appointees to top cabinet positions are a mix of incompetent and mean spirited billionaires and generals. This alliance of powerful representatives of predatory financial capitalists and right-wing supporters of the immense military-industrial-surveillance complex makes clear Trump’s support of the worst elements of neoliberalism—a war on education, support for austerity policies, and  an attack on social provisions, the poor, workers, unions, and the most vulnerable. As Eric Sommer wrote in CounterPunch, “These ministerial level cabinet selections are a warning that far greater attacks on the social and economic rights of American workers, and greater militarism and military aggression abroad are being prepared.”[9] Trump’s affirmation of an updated version of the Gilded Age and his attempts to accelerate America’s slide into authoritarianism is an assault on reason, compassion, morality, and human dignity. Its underside is a political mix of militarism and rule by the financial elite, both of which are central features of a savage neoliberal assault on democracy. Trump’s government of billionaires and militarists makes clear that the next few years will be governed by ruthless financial elite who will give new meaning to a war culture that will impose forms of domestic terrorism across a wide swath of American society.

Thus far, Trump has appointed three generals to join his cabinet—James Mattis and Michael Flynn for Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor, along with Retired General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly is infamous for defending the force-feeding of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and wants to expand the prison population there. Retired General Mattis, whose nickname is “Mad Dog,” stated in 2003, the year that Iraq was invaded, that “It’s fun to shoot some people, you know, it’s a hell of a hoot.”[10]  He once told marines under his command “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”[11] As difficult as it is to imagine it gets worse. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security advisor considers Islam, with its population of 1.3 billion, a terrorist threat. He has also used the social media to spread fake news stories “linking Mrs. Clinton to underage sex rings and other serious crimes [while pushing] unsubstantiated claims about Islamic laws spreading in the United States.”[12]  At work here is an emerging political-social formation in which fake news becomes an accepted mode of shaping public discourse, inexperience and incompetence become revered criteria for holding public office, and social responsibility is removed from any vestige of politics. All of these appointments point to the emergence of a new political order in which the dystopian fears of George Orwell and Aldus Huxley are merged with the comic grotesquery of the tyrannical systems lampooned by the Marx brothers.

Under the reign of right-wing governments and social movements spreading throughout the world, thinking has become dangerous. Increasingly, neoliberal regimes across Europe and North America have waged a major assault on critical education and the public spheres in which they take place. For instance, public and higher education are being defunded, turned into accountability factories, and now largely serve as adjuncts of an instrumental logic that mimics the values of a business culture. But, of course, this is not only true for spaces in which formal schooling takes place, it is also the case for those public spheres and cultural apparatuses producing knowledge, values, subjectivities, and identities through a range of media and sites.  This applies to a range of creative spaces including art galleries, museums, diverse sites that make up screen culture, and various elements of mainstream media.[13]

Such sites have come under increasing fire since the 1970s and the war against dissident journalism, in particular, will intensify under a Trump presidency.  Attacking the media was a central feature of Trump’s presidential campaign speaks to a coming age of repression, posing a dire threat to freedom of speech. As, Christopher Hass, observes “But more importantly, he threatened to ‘open up’ libel laws so that he and others can more easily sue publications that are critical of them. Those kinds of attacks are designed to burn money and hours that independent publications don’t have-and sometimes they can be fatal.”[14]What the apostles of neoliberalism have learned is that alternative media outlets along with diverse forms of cultural production can change how people view the world, and that such forms of public pedagogy can be dangerous because they hold the potential for not only creating critically engaged students, intellectuals, and artists but can strengthen and expand the general publics’ imagination, give them critical tools to enable them to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, and  hold power accountable. Such thinking is also a prerequisite for developing social movements willing to rethink the vision and tactics necessary to fight against an authoritarian state.

In the face of Trump’s draconian assault on democracy, it is crucial to rethink mechanisms of a repressive politics not only by highlighting its multiple registers of economic power, but also through the ideological pedagogical mechanisms at work in creating modes of agency, identities, and values that both mimic and surrender to authoritarian ideologies and social practices. In this instance, education as it works through diverse institutions, cultural apparatuses, and sites is crucial to both understand and appropriate as part of the development of a radical politics. Reclaiming radical pedagogy as a form of educated and militant hope begins with the crucial recognition that education is not solely about job training and the production of ethically challenged entrepreneurial subjects but is primarily about matters of civic literacy, critical thinking, and the capacity for liberatory change. It is also inextricably connected to the related issues of power, inclusion, and social responsibility.[15] If young people, workers, educators, and others are to develop a keen sense of the common good, as well as an informed notion of community engagement, pedagogy must be viewed as a cultural, political, and moral force, if not formative culture, that provides the knowledge, values, and social relations to make such democratic practices possible.

In this instance, pedagogy as a central element of politics needs to be rigorous, self-reflective, and committed not to the dead zone of instrumental rationality but to the practice of freedom and liberation for the most vulnerable and oppressed. It must also cultivate a critical sensibility capable of advancing the parameters of knowledge, stretching the imagination, addressing crucial social issues, and connecting private troubles into public issues. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must overcome the image of education as purely instrumental, a dead zone of the imagination, and a normalized space of oppressive discipline and imposed conformity.

A neoliberal and anti-democratic pedagogy of management and conformity not only undermines the critical knowledge and analytical skills necessary for students to learn the practice of freedom and assume the role of critical agents, it also reinforces deeply authoritarian practices while reproducing deep inequities in the educational opportunities that different students acquire. Pedagogies of repression and conformity impose punishing forms of discipline not just on students, but on the general public, deadening their ability to think critically; how else to explain the refusal of large segments of the public to think through and challenge the lies, misrepresentations, and contradictions that Trump used during his campaign.  Repressive forms of public pedagogy empty out politics of any substance and further a modern day pandemic of loneliness and alienation. Such pedagogies emphasize aggressive competition, unchecked individualism, and cancel out empathy for an exaggerated notion of self-interest. Solidarity and sharing are the enemy of these pedagogical practices, which are driven by a withdrawal from sustaining public values, trust, and goods and serve largely to cancel out a democratic future for young people. This type of pedagogical tyranny poses a particular challenge for progressives who are willing to acknowledge that the crisis of politics and economics has not been matched by a crisis of ideas, resulting in new age of authoritarianism.

A new age of monstrosities is emerging that necessitates that we rethink the connection between politics and democracy, on the one hand, and education and social change on the other.  More specifically, we might begin with the following questions:  What institutions, agents, and social movements can be developed capable of challenging the dark times ahead?  Moreover, what pedagogical conditions need to be exposed and overcome in order to create the formative culture that would make such a challenge successful?  Even thinking such questions becomes difficult in a time of growing pessimism and despair.

Domination is at its most powerful when its mechanisms of control and subjugation hide in the discourse of common sense, and its elements of power are made to appear invisible. Yet, progressives in a wide variety of sites can take up the challenge of not only relating their specialties and modes of cultural production to the intricacies of everyday life but also to rethink how politics works, and how power is central to such a task. Bruce Robbins articulates the challenge well in both his defense of making the pedagogical more political and his defense of struggles waged on the educational front and his reference to how theorists such as Foucault provide a model for such work. He writes:

But I also thought that intellectuals should be trying, like Foucault, to relate our specialized knowledge to things in general. We could not just become activists focused on particular struggles or editors striving to help little magazines make ends meet. We also had a different kind of role to play: thinking hard, as Foucault did, about how best to understand the ways power worked in our time. Foucault, like Sartre and Sontag and Said, was an intellectual, even at some points despite himself. He helped us understand the world in newly critical and imaginative ways. He offered us new lines of reasoning while also engaging in activism and political position-taking.[16]

Power is fundamental to any discourse about education and raises critical questions about what role education should play in a democracy and what role academics, artists, and other cultural workers might assume in order to address important social issues, in part, through the liberatory functions of education. This would suggest not only a relentless critique of dominant discourses, social practices, and policies, but also the need to engage in collective attempts to invent a new way of doing politics. Those concerned about the future of democracy have to rethink how power informs, shapes, and can be resourceful in both understanding and challenging power under the reign of global neoliberalism. This is especially true at a time in which a full scale attack is being waged by the Trump administration and other neoliberal societies on the public good, social provisions, and the welfare state.

Educators and other cultural workers should consider being more forceful, if not committed, to linking their overall politics to modes of critique and collective action that address the presupposition that democratic societies are never too just or just enough, and such a recognition means that a society must constantly nurture the possibilities for self-critique, collective agency, and forms of citizenship in which people play a fundamental role in critically discussing, administrating and shaping the material relations of power and ideological forces that bear down on their everyday lives. This is particularly important at a time when ignorance provides a sense of community; the brain has migrated to the dark pit of the spectacle and the only discourse that matters is about business. Trump has legitimated a spirit of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and corruption. Thought now chases after emotions that obliterate it and actions are no longer framed against any viable notion of social responsibility.

At stake here is the task, as Jacques Derrida insists, of viewing the project of democracy as a promise, a possibility rooted in an ongoing struggle for economic, cultural, and social justice.[17] Democracy in this instance is not a sutured or formalistic regime, it is the site of struggle itself. The struggle over creating an inclusive and just democracy can take many forms, offers no political guarantees, and provides an important normative dimension to politics as an ongoing process of democratization that never ends.  Such a project is based on the realization  that a democracy that is open to exchange, question, and self-criticism  never reaches the limits of justice.

Theorists such as Raymond Williams and Cornelius Castoriadis recognized that the crisis of democracy was not only about the crisis of culture but also the crisis agency, values, and education.  Progressives and others who refuse to equate capitalism and democracy would do well to take account of the profound transformations taking place in the public sphere and reclaim pedagogy as a central category of politics itself. Pierre Bourdieu was right when he stated that cultural workers have too often “underestimated the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle and have not always forged appropriate weapons to fight on this front.”[18] He goes on to say in a later conversation with Gunter Grass that “left intellectuals must recognize that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical, and lie on the side of belief and persuasion. Important to recognize that intellectuals bear an enormous responsibility for challenging this form of domination.”[19]These are important pedagogical interventions and imply rightly that pedagogy in the broadest sense is not just about understanding, however critical, but also provides the conditions, ideals, and practices necessary for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it. Matters of responsibility, social action, and political intervention do not simply develop out of the practice of social criticism but also arise through forms of self-critique.  The relationship between knowledge and power, on the one hand, and education and politics, on the other, should always be self-reflexive about its effects, how it relates to the larger world, whether or not it is open to new understandings, and what it might mean pedagogically to take seriously matters of individual and social responsibility. Any viable understanding of the artist and educator as a public intellectual must begin with the recognition that democracy begins to fail and civic life becomes impoverished when power is relegated to the realm of common sense and critical thinking is no longer viewed as central to politics itself. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is a case study in how politics has been emptied of any substance and civic illiteracy has been normalized. Trump’s claim that he loves the uneducated appears to have paid off for him just as his victory makes clear that ignorance rather than reason, emotion rather than informed judgment, and the threat of violence rather than critical exchange appear to have more currency in the current historical moment.

This political tragedy ushered in with Trump’s election signifies the failure of the American public to recognize the educative nature of how agency is constructed, to address the necessity for moral witnessing, and the need to create a formative culture that produces critically engaged and socially responsible citizens. Realty-TV bombast and celebrity culture confers enormous authority in America and in doing so empties civil society and democracy of any meaning. Neoliberalism’s culture of consumerism, immediate satisfaction, and unchecked individualism both infantilizes and depoliticizes. The election of Donald Trump cannot simply be dismissed as an eccentric and dark moment in the history of American politics. His election proves that collective self-delusion can be dangerous when the spaces for critical learning, dissent, and informed judgment begin to whither or disappear altogether.

As Trump’s presidency gets underway, the neoliberalism’s hired intellectuals and celebrity pundits have already ushered in a discourse that will increasing normalize the regime of a dangerous demagogue, glossing over the ideological, economic, and religious fundamentalists he has chosen to fill top government positions.  Such actions represent more than a flight from political and social responsibility, they also represent a surrender to the dark forces of authoritarianism. Dierdre Fulton, a writer for The Nation, is right in arguing that the process of normalization has already begun since Trump election. She writes:

Oprah Winfrey, in an interview with Entertainment Tonight, said Trump’s recent visit to the White House gave her ‘hope’ and suggested he has been ‘humbled’ by the experience,’ Johnson wrote.  ‘The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins told his readers to ‘calm down’ and that     Trump wasn’t the ‘worst thing.’ His colleague, Nouriel Roubini, insisted the Oval Office      will ‘tame’ Trump. People magazine ran a glowing profile of Trump and his wife Melania   (though a former People writer accused Trump of sexual assault). The New York Times’ Nick Kristof dubiously added that we should ‘Grit our teeth and give Trump a chance.’   The mainstays —Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN—while frequently critical, are covering Trump’s transition as they would any other.[20]

Democracy should be a way of thinking about education in a variety of spheres and practices, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of the public good.[21] The question regarding what role education should play in democracy becomes all the more urgent at a time when the dark forces of authoritarianism are being normalized in the mainstream media.  Central to such a discourse are hidden structures of critique and power attempting to normalize a full-frontal attack on public values, trust, solidarities, and modes of liberatory education. As such, the discourses of hate, humiliation, rabid self-interest, and greed are exercising a poisonous influence in many Western societies. This is most evident at the present moment in the discourse of the right-wing extremists vying to consolidate their authority within a Trump presidency, all of whom sanction a war on immigrants, women, young people, poor Black youth, and so it goes.  One consequence is that democracy is on life support. This is all the more reason to take the late Edward Said’s call for modes of social criticism designed “to uncover and elucidate the contest, to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet  of unseen power, wherever and whenever possible.”  Yet, in spite of the dark forces now threatening many societies around the globe, it is crucial for intellectuals, artists and others to renounce any form of normalization of power, the toxic public pedagogies of neoliberalism, and to take on radical democracy as both a pedagogical project and unfinished ideal. Such a challenge will be all the easier if progressives and others can create the pedagogical conditions that can produce an individual and collective sense of moral and political outrage, a new understanding of politics, and the pedagogical and projects needed to allow democracy to breathe once again.

Trump’s presence in American politics has made visible a plague of deep seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system, and a contempt for reason; it also points to the withering of civic attachments, the collapse of politics into the spectacle of celebrity culture, the decline of public life, the use of violence and fear to numb people into shock, and a willingness to transform politics into a pathology. Trump’s administration will produce a great deal of violence in American society, particularly among the ranks of the most vulnerable: poor children, minorities of color, immigrants, women, climate change advocates, Muslims, and those protesting a Trump presidency.  What must be made clear is that Trump’s election and the damage he will do to American society will stay and fester in American society for quite some time because he is only symptomatic of the darker forces that have been smoldering in American politics for the last 40 years. What cannot be exaggerated or easily dismissed is that Trump is the end result of a long standing series of attacks on democracy and that his presence in the American political landscape has put democracy on trial. While mass civil demonstrations have and continue to erupt over Trump’s election, what is more crucial to understand is that something more serious needs to be addressed. We have to acknowledge that at this particular moment in American history the real issue is not simply about resisting Donald Trump’s insidious values and anti-democratic policies but whether a political system can be reclaimed in which a notion of radical democracy can be deepened, strengthened and sustained. Yet, under a Trump presidency, it will be more difficult to sustain, construct, and nurture those public spheres that sustain critique, informed dialogue, and a work to expand the radical imagination. If democracy is to prevail in and through the threat of “dark times,” it is crucial that the avenues of critique and possibility become central to any new understanding of politics. If the authoritarianism of the Trump era is to be challenged, it must begin with a politics that is comprehensive in its attempts to understand the intersectionality of diverse forces of oppression and resistance.  That is, on the one hand, it must move towards developing analyses that address the existing state of authoritarianism through a totalizing lens that brings together the diverse registers of oppression and how they are both connected and mutually reinforce each other. On the other hand, such a politics must, as Robin D.G. Kelley has noted, “move beyond stopgap alliances”[22] and work to unite single issue movements into a more comprehensive and broad-based social movement that can make a viable claim to a resistance that is as integrated as it is powerful. For too long progressive cultural workers and activists have adhered to a narrative about domination that relies mostly on remaking economic structures and presenting to the public what might be called a barrage of demystifying facts and an aesthetics of transgression. What they have ignored is that people also internalize oppression and that domination is about not only the crisis of economics, images that deaden the imagination, and the misrepresentation of reality, but also about the crisis of agency, identification, meaning, and desire.

The crisis of economics and politics in the Trump era has not been matched by a crisis of consciousness and agency. The failure to develop a crisis of consciousness is deeply rooted in a society that suffers from a plague of atomization, loneliness, and despair. Neoliberalism has undermined any democratic understanding of freedom limiting its meaning to the dictates of consumerism, hatred of government, and a politics where the personal is the only emotional referent that matters. Freedom has collapsed into the dark abyss of a vapid and unchecked individualism and in doing so has cancelled out that capacious notion of freedom rooted in the bonds of solidarity, compassion, social responsibility, and the bonds of social obligations. The toxic neoliberal combination of unchecked economic growth is a discourse that legitimates plundering the earths’ resources and exhibits a pathological disdain for community and public values that has weakened democratic pressures, values, and social relations and opened the door for the dark side of politics under Donald Trump’s Presidency. The rule of the billionaires and militarists threaten not just democracy but the existence of the planet. The stakes for both justice, if not survival, are more important than ever.  There is no room for resignation, internecine squabbles, and despair. Resistance must take on the challenge of creating an informed public, the need to develop new forms of non-violent resistance, and mobilize a collective sense of outrage mixed with a need for disciplined and focus action.

Pressing the claim for social justice and economic equality means working hard to develop alternative modes of consciousness, promote the proliferation of democratic public spheres, create the conditions for modes of mass resistance, and make the development of sustainable social movements central to any viable struggle for economic, political, and social justice. No viable democracy can exist without citizens who value and are willing to work towards the common good.  That is as much a pedagogical question as it is a political challenge.

[1] Yesmin Villarreal, “Betsy DeVos: Education Reform Can ‘Advance God’s Kingdom’”, Advocate (December 3, 2016). Online:

[2] Catherine Brown, “Point: Trump’s Education Plan —Defund, Devalue and Privatize Our School System.” Inside Sources (December 5, 2016). Online:

[3] Amy Goodman, “Housing Advocate: It’s Scary that Trump HUD Secretary Pick Ben Carson Thinks Poverty is a Choice,” Democracy Now (November 16, 2016). Online:

[4] Brendan Gauthier, “HUD secretary front-runner Ben Carson recently called fair housing ‘communist,’” Salon (November 28, 2016).

[5] Noam Scheiber and Maggie Haberman, “Trump’s Likely Labor Pick, Andrew Puzder, Is Critic of Minimum Wage Increases,” New York Times (December 8, 2017). Online:

[6] Ibid., Scheiber and Haberman, “Trump’s Likely Labor Pick, Andrew Puzder, Is Critic of Minimum Wage Increases.”

[7] Ibid., Scheiber and Haberman, “Trump’s Likely Labor Pick, Andrew Puzder, Is Critic of Minimum Wage Increases.”

[8] Mike Lillis, “Liberal Dems: Trump filling Cabinet with ‘stooges’,” The Hill (December 8, 2016). Online:

[9] Eric Sommer, “Team Trump: a Government of Generals and Billionaires,” CounterPunch (December 7, 2016). Online:

[10] Cited in Dahr Jamail, “Trump Nominee for Homeland Security John Kelly Favors Draconian Immigration Policy.” The Real News (December 8, 2016). Online:

[11] Ibid., Dahr Jamail.

[12] Mathew Rosenberg, “Trump Adviser Has Pushed Clinton Conspiracy Theories,” New York Times (December 5, 2016). Online:

[13] Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[14] Christopher Hass, “This is Serious,” In These Times (December 7, 2016). Online:

[15] On this issue, see Henry A. Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2014);  Susan Searls Giroux, “On the Civic Function of Intellectuals Today,” in Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, eds. Education as Civic Engagement: Toward a More Democratic Society (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), pp. ix-xvii.

[16] Bruce Robbins, “A Starting Point for Politics,” The Nation, (October 22, 2016). Online:

[17]. Jacques Derrida, “Intellectual Courage: An Interview,” trans. Peter Krapp, Culture Machine, Volume 2 (2000), pp. 1-15.

[18] Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance (New York: Free Press, 1998), p. 11.

[19] Pierre Bourdieu and Gunter Grass, “The ‘Progressive’ Restoration: A Franco-German Dialogue,” New Left Review 14 (March-April, 2002), P. 2

[20] Deirdre Fulton, “There’s No Normalizing President-Elect Trump,” The Nation (November 14, 2016). Online:

[21] Henry A. Giroux, Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[22] Robin D. G. Kelley, “After Trump,” Boston Review (November 15, 2016). Online:

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is


A Trump junta?


9 December 2016

The selection Wednesday of Marine Gen. John Kelly, the former head of US Southern Command, to head the Department of Homeland Security brings to three the number of recently retired generals tapped by president-elect Donald Trump for his incoming cabinet.

Before nominating Kelly, Trump named the rabidly anti-Muslim Lieut. Gen. Mike Flynn, the retired former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his national security adviser.

He has also announced his choice of the former head of US Central Command, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his repeated statements expressing a love for killing, to head the Defense Department. Securing the nomination of Mattis as defense secretary requires congressional approval of a waiver exempting him from a law barring commissioned military officers who have served in uniform over the previous seven years from taking the post. Mattis retired in 2013 and took a seat on the board of directors of major military contractor General Dynamics.

There are other so-called flag officers waiting in the wings. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, also a former US Central Command chief who briefly served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is reportedly under consideration for Secretary of State. He would have to secure permission from his probation officer to work in Washington or travel outside the US. Petraeus was sentenced to two years probation last year after pleading guilty to handing over top secret intelligence documents to his mistress.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, who met with Trump in New York Thursday, is also reportedly being vetted for the post of Secretary of State. Previously, he was considered a possible running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And Adm. Michael Rogers, currently head of the National Security Agency, is said to be a contender for Director of National Intelligence.

The number of senior military officers being assembled in the Trump cabinet makes the incoming administration resemble more and more a Latin American military junta. The placing of both the Defense Department, overseeing the massive US war machine, and the Department of Homeland Security, which coordinates a ballooning police-state apparatus, in the hands of two recently retired Marine Corps generals is particularly chilling, suggesting a government that aims to seamlessly coordinate war abroad and repression at home under the tight control of a military camarilla.

Trump, the billionaire conman who secured five deferments to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war, appears to revel in surrounding himself with military brass, shouting out idiotically “‘Mad Dog’ Mattis” at rallies, as if association with the architect of the slaughter of Fallujah will somehow strengthen his image. But there is an objective source of the rise of the military into the top positions of the government.

It is now more than 55 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former senior allied commander in World War II, made a farewell speech in which he cautioned against the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” whose “influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.”

Eisenhower warned, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

It is highly unlikely that Eisenhower could have imagined in his wildest dreams either the scale of the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” expressed in the incoming Trump administration or the vast growth of the US military apparatus.

At $580 billion, the Pentagon’s budget consumes more than half of the discretionary spending of the federal government each year. Adding on the slush fund for unending overseas wars, money spent on atomic weapons and other military expenses, the real cost of Washington’s war machine is more like $1 trillion a year.

Along with the Pentagon budget, the power of the military brass has grown uninterruptedly, particularly over the past quarter century of unending wars. The creation of a professional “all-volunteer” armed forces has increasingly isolated the military from civilian society, creating a distinct social caste that has asserted its independent political interests in the affairs of state ever more aggressively. So-called “unified combatant commanders,” like Mattis, Kelly, Petraeus and Stavridis, exercise vast power over entire regions of the globe, far overshadowing any ambassador or other civilian representative of the US government.

While the rank-and-file of the US military appears to have heavily favored Trump in the election—partly out of the misguided hope that he would halt the unending wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East—Democrat Hillary Clinton was the favorite of the top US military brass, who considered her a veteran supporter of militarism and a more reliable backer of their strategic preparations for war against Russia.

Outside of Flynn, none of the ex-military commanders being nominated or considered for top posts had endorsed Trump. Some of them had clashed with the Obama administration, Mattis over Iran and Kelly over Guantanamo, for example.

As much as Trump is choosing ex-generals, the generals may themselves be choosing to join his administration, confident that they can ultimately dictate policy.

The Obama administration and congressional Democrats signaled Thursday that they will place no obstacles in the path of Mattis’ appointment as defense secretary. A measure has been added to a stopgap spending bill set for approval before Congress adjourns this weekend that will fast-track the waiving of the legal ban on recently serving officers taking the post. Debate on the waiver in the Senate is to be limited to 10 hours, even though this will be the first time such a waiver has been granted in over 60 years.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Trump “should be given wide latitude in assembling his team,” and that Obama “believes this is an important principle.”

More important, apparently, than civilian control of the military. That this bedrock constitutional principle has been transformed into all but a dead letter, supported by no significant section of the political establishment, is among the starkest manifestations of the decay and collapse of bourgeois democratic institutions in the United States, which have found their consummate political expression in the advent of the Trump presidency.

What is being assembled in the ongoing sessions at New York City’s Trump Towers is a government of class war, comprised of billionaires and generals. It is turning to the military as it prepares to implement policies of social reaction at home and war abroad, and to confront the massive popular opposition that these policies will provoke from within the working class and the youth.

Bill Van Auken




Sanders’ Social Democracy vs. Trump’s Authoritarian Doctrine

What Trump’s semi-success at the Carrier plant means for the future.

adult experienced industrial worker during heavy industry machinery assembling on production line manufacturing workshop
Photo Credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky

President-elect Trump scored a remarkable victory by saving 1,000 of the 2,100 jobs that Carrier and its parent company, United Technologies, were outsourcing to Mexico. During the campaign, Trump pledged to stop those jobs from leaving the country and he has come through (much credit should be given to the United Steelworkers for keeping this issue alive).

Trump used the plight of those workers, represented by the United Steelworkers, as a battering ram to pummel Hillary Clinton on trade and the loss of decent paying U.S. manufacturing jobs. Now, his partial success could lead to a mass exodus of working people from Democratic party.

The Myth of the White Working Class

Post-election pundits are propagating the false equation that “industrial workers” equals “white working class,” and that Clinton’s crushing defeat in the Rust Belt was the result of a white worker revolt against political correctness — i.e., they’re racists!

But America’s industrial workforce reflects the future, not the past. The 1,400-person Carrier workforce in Indianapolis, for example, is 50 percent African American. Women make up half of the workers on its assembly lines, and 10 percent of the employees are Burmese immigrants.

This means Donald Trump, bigot in chief, has just saved the decent-paying, unionized jobs of women, African Americans, immigrants and white workers. Look out Democrats.

Benign Neglect at the Democratic Party

Trump’s effort to save these jobs contrasts starkly with the failure of the established Democratic Party to do anything at all about such devastating plant closures. President Obama has never used his bully pulpit to mention even one of the thousands of facilities that shifted abroad under his watch. Similarly, Hillary Clinton remained silent about Carrier during her entire campaign, thereby allowing Trump to morph into the champion of the working class.

But none of that is particularly surprising given how deeply Wall Street/corporate elites are embedded within the Democratic Party. More troubling still is that party elites believe these relocations are economically justifiable.

Neoliberal ideology (the holiness of tax cuts, privatization, deregulation, and the free movement of capital) has become the conventional wisdom of the entire political establishment of both parties. The media in particular echoes the inaccurate notion that these facilities must move so that the parent company can keep up with competition. (Carrier, in fact, is leaving in order to secure more funds for stock-buybacks to enrich hedge funds and top corporate officers.) All of this capital mobility is pictured as result of globalization—a force akin to an act of God.

Virtually every article on Carrier opines that Trump’s quick fix cannot alter the technological march that surely will displace these blue collar workers. What they are really saying is the corporations have the right and obligation to move wherever and whenever they wish in order to boost profits and “shareholder value.” Mainstream economists then assure us that, overall, society is better off due lower-cost imported goods and higher value-added domestic jobs, even if a few workers are sacrificed along the way.

But a “few workers” have turned into millions of family members and members of devastated communities who have seen their lives deteriorate. They are heading Trump’s way.

Sanders to the Rescue?

Bernie Sanders saw all this coming. That’s why he challenged Clinton in the first place, and that’s why he’s now trying to capture the Democratic Party and turn it into the champion of working people against Wall Street and “the billionaire class.”

In the case of Carrier, Sanders is calling on Trump not to accept a compromise that will still allow half of the jobs to be moved to Mexico. Staying true to his radical politics, Sanders also is calling for new “Outsourcing Prevention Act” that would:

  1. Bar companies from receiving future contracts, tax breaks, grants or loans from the federal government if they have announced plans to outsource more than 50 jobs to other countries;

  2. Require all companies to pay back all federal tax breaks, grants and loans they have received from the federal government over the last decade if they outsource more than 50 jobs in a given year;

  3. Impose a tax on all companies that outsource jobs. The tax would be equal to the amount of savings achieved by outsourcing jobs or 35 percent of its profits, whichever is higher.

  4. Prohibit companies that offshore jobs from enriching executives through golden parachutes, stock options, bonuses, or other forms of compensation by imposing stiff tax penalties on this compensation.

Reactionary versus Progressive Populism

The stage is set for an epic struggle between Trump’s right wing populism and Sanders-style social democracy. The corporate-driven Democrats may soon be irrelevant. Either they go along with Sanders and compete for the allegiance with working people, or they get pummeled by more working class defections to Trump’s brand of populism.

Sanders believes that neoliberalism is heart of our problem — that it leads to runaway inequality, a rigged political system, an exploitative Wall Street, and the full-scale assault on the living and working conditions of working people — black, brown, white, gay and straight. That system, he believes, also leads to the dramatic rise of incarceration, urban and rural poverty, and the stalling of real wages for the vast majority of the population.

Sanders understands we only can win significant social democratic reforms if we link together the full set of victims (most of the 99%). He’s talking about the kind of programs that will appreciably improve our lives — free higher education, single-payer health care, a major attack on climate change, massive public job creation, real criminal justice and immigration reform, a Wall Street speculation tax and now the Outsourcing Prevention Act.

Getting it Right

It’s too late to take the Carrier victory away form Trump. It won’t work to belittle Trump by claiming it only covers 1,000 jobs, or that too many public tax breaks were tossed to the corporation, or that globalization will eventually make those jobs go away. One thousand jobs means 1,000 families who will not see their incomes slashed in half, or worse. More importantly it means hope, that maybe outsourcing to low-wage countries can be ameliorated.

As a result, Sanders is making a difficult request both of the Democratic Party, and of progressive activists in general. He is asking us to place working people at the center of our work: “The working class of this country is being decimated — that’s why Donald Trump won,” Sanders said. “And what we need now are candidates who stand with those working people, who understand that real median family income has gone down.”

To get there, Sanders is fanning a contentious debate: He argues that the current practice of identity politics is not a complete political program. As he bluntly stated, “It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ That is not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industries.”

So what does this mean for the efforts of tens of thousands of progressive activists who are deeply engaged in halting climate change, preventing police violence, securing equal rights the LGBTQ community, protecting immigrants, and working on a myriad of other significant causes?

Sanders implies that for any of us to succeed, we all must join the fight to enhance the lives of working people. No matter what our priority issue, we will need to devote time and resources to fight for universal programs that lift us all up. In short, we have to expand our issue silos so that fighting Wall Street and the billionaire class can link us together.Sanders could not be clearer: Either we become a broad-based class movement or we lose. The choice is ours, not Trump’s.


Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute in New York, and author of How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning Off America’s Wealth (J. Wiley and Sons, 2013).