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Revolutionary Critical Pedagogy: Staking a Claim Against the Macrostructural Unconscious

By Peter McLaren

Critical pedagogy currently exists today as precariously as a shabby lean-to room added to a typical American hall-and-parlor house. I’m referring to the type of house that formed the basic English prototype for the classic American building we see everywhere in New England and on the East Coast. If the hall-and-parlor house represents education in the main, then we critical educators are as rare as hen’s teeth, shunted to the rear of the house, squatters huddled under a slanted roof, wearing fingerless gloves, clutching our tin cups of broth, spearing biscuits, and dreaming of the day when we will become an official part of the architecture of democracy.

Those of us who practice revolutionary critical pedagogy, who comprise the night-shift of critical pedagogy, are more marginalized still. Our push for democracy in U.S. schools is drowned out by the clamour of the parlors and chambers being enlarged above to make room for more policies such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top or even the current Common Core. Charter schools, while making up only a fraction of the overall schools in the country, are more accepted into the floor plan than are public schools in communities struggling with unemployment and urban infrastructure damage. And what happens when students exit those floor plans and enter into the university system? Here students enter a more ominous structure because they are given the appearance of having some autonomy over the process of their learning, of having some control of the production of knowledge and the formation of their own political subjectivity. Yet here, alas, wisps of consumer whimsy disguised as truth trickle out of the smokestacks of knowledge production; intellectual chloroform wafts from corporate furnaces towering over the entire system, anesthetizing young brains and putting dreams into deep sleep.

Life since Year Zero of the Capitalocene to the advent of techno-eco systems and their toxic and eutrophicating chemicals has not been a pleasant ride. Soon we will be fracking the noosphere of human thought in our lecture halls, making Freire’s critique of banking education seem utterly tame. Teachers’ work will be routinized and rationalized to that of stoop labourers (as Henry Giroux would put it) weeding celery fields. As far as job satisfaction goes within our inherited system of reactionary meritocracy, a Walmart cashier or a Best Buy clerk would feel more fulfilled. As any awake teacher is aware, we live at a time of intensified race and class warfare in U.S. society. The crisis is epidemic and readily visible in our schools. As each generation tries to move forward on the path to liberation, we are held back, ensepulchered in the vault of hubris like insects frozen in amber, while the trees are filled with green whispers of perturbation.

The world is being transformed into a single mode of production and a single global system and bringing about the integration of different countries and regions into a new global economy and society (Robinson, 2004, 2014, 2016). As William I. Robinson notes, the revolution in computer and information technology and other technological advances has helped emergent transnational capital to achieve major gains in productivity and to restructure, “flexibilize,” and shed labour worldwide. This, in turn, has undercut wages and the social wage and facilitated a transfer of income to capital and to high consumption sectors around the world that provided new globalized flexible market segments fuelling growth. A new capital-labour relation emerged that was based on the deregulation, informalization, deunionization, and the subordination of labour worldwide. More and more workers have swelled the ranks of the “precariat”– a proletariat existing in permanently precarious conditions of instability and uncertainty. In saying this, we need to recognize that capitalist-produced social control over the working-class remains in the hands of a single powerful state – what Robinson (2004, 2014, 2016) calls the core institution of the transnational state that serves the interests of the transnationalist capitalist class. This transnational capitalist class (TCC), according to Robinson, constitutes a polyarchy of hegemonic elites which trade and capital have brought into increasingly interconnected relationships and who operate objectively as a class both spatially and politically within the global corporate structure. This corporate structure has congealed around the expansion of transnational capital owned by the world bourgeoisie. Robinson here is referring to transnational alliances of owners of the global corporations and private financial institutions who control the worldwide means of production and manage – through the consolidation of the transnational corporate-policy networks – global rather than national circuits of production. Robinson describes these groups as operating in clusters scattered throughout the globe, clusters that cohere and increasingly concentrate their wealth through mergers and acquisitions. This transnational capitalist class struggles for control over strategic issues of class rule and how to achieve regulatory order within the global capitalist historic bloc. According to Robinson, there are clear empirical indicators that transnational capital is integrating itself throughout the globe and some of these include the spread of TNCs, the sharp increase in foreign direct investment, the proliferation of mergers and acquisitions across national borders, the rise of a global financial system, and the increased interlocking of positions within the global corporate structure. Robinson essentially argues that capitalism is now participating in a global epochal shift in which all human activity is transformed into capital. All social relationships are becoming privatized as part of the global circulation of capital.

Robinson (2016) has described in compelling detail the acute crisis surrounding the structural destabilization of capitalist globalization as a result of capital over-accumulation and runaway transnational capital. This has contributed fundamentally to a system of what he describes as “sadistic capitalism” that has created a “new social global apartheid” as well as pushed us to the ecological limits of capitalist reproduction. Robinson reports that in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the G-8 and G-20 were unable to impose transnational regulation of the global financial system which had broken free from the constraints posed by the nation-state. This was to remain the case despite increasingly desperate attempts to regulate the market in the wake of the crisis.

Earlier structural crises of world capitalism were nothing like the systemic crisis that we are witnessing today. Robinson notes that the level of global social polarization and inequality today is unprecedented as we face out-of-control, over-accumulated capital. He points out that among the upper echelons of the global power bloc, the richest 20 percent of humanity owns approximately 95 percent of the world’s wealth. The bottom 80 percent owns approximately 5 percent. This differentiating wealth or inequality not only exists between rich and poor countries but also increasingly exists within each country. All over the globe we are witnessing “the rise of new affluent high-consumption sectors alongside the downward mobility, ‘precariatization,’ destabilization and expulsion of majorities” (Robinson, 2016). Robinson (2016) warns about the alienation of a vast surplus population inhabiting a “planet of slums” (approximately a third of the world’s population), who are unable to participate in the productive economy. He describes these new members of the vulnerable and exploitable “precariat” as “the proletariat that faces capital under today’s unstable and precarious labour relations – informalization, casualization, part-time, temp, immigrant and contract labour.”

Never before, notes Robinson (2016), have there existed such escalating worldwide inequalities, monitored by a “panoptical surveillance society” holding such an obscene control over the means of global communications and the production and circulation of knowledge. He uses the metaphor of the “green zone” in central Baghdad to illustrate how the transnational ruling class has “green-zoned” the world by means of gentrification, gated communities, surveillance systems, and state and private violence. He writes that within “the world’s green zones, privileged strata avail themselves of privatized social services, consumption and entertainment” (2016). He illustrates how this group “can work and communicate through internet and satellite sealed off under the protection of armies of soldiers, police and private security forces” (2016). Keeping those outside of society’s green zones under the iron fist of the state is much easier with what Robinson (2016) calls the exercise of “militainment”. This refers to “portraying and even glamorizing war and violence as entertaining spectacles through Hollywood films and television police shows”, a form of entertainment that Robinson (2016) argues may constitute the “epitome of sadistic capitalism”….

Here in the U.S., the mutation of capitalism is as alluringly disturbing as the porcelain doll’s face missing an eye and large swaths of hair that you noticed staring at you from the grime splotched window of the local antique shop. We are surrounded by huckstering dogtrot politicians making backroom deals with real world order big-wigs while pretending that they’re just folks like us when, in fact, there is a slumberous gulf separating them from ordinary wage labourers. These guardians of the transnational state don’t even have the diplomacy of an innocent-seemingness. They make no bones about thriving on war and widespread human misery and try to convince us that we all will benefit from their practice-oriented codes of moral outlawry. These mawkish moralizers, these Byzantine meritocrats, these shameless panderers to farmers and blue collar workers, these exploiters of rank-and-file workers, Blacks, Latino/as and other oppressed minorities and indigenous peoples, these oppressors of women, of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender people and youth, these fear mongers and militant extollers of family and Christian values know very well that by announcing that you are down with the Lord from a mobile bandstand set up in a Chuck E. Cheese, it will allow you to be forgiven in today’s political arena of the spectacle even if, years later, you are exposed on America’s Most Wanted for having butchered your parents with your Deluxe Wood Burning Kit and thrillingly slurped down their intestines with a root beer float when you were a 12-year-old because they didn’t get you a puppy for your birthday. These sybaritic plutocrats, their suitcases brimming with obligatory knowledge and spineless comportment, are hauling their vacuous anti-wisdom into the classrooms of our children. The transnational capitalist class, wearing God on their shirtsleeves and dawdling at shop windows full of indulgence, with hardly a craving unsatisfied, their enraptured gaze directed at some new electronic toy, are hurtling us into a future where the tenor of pain and alienation are carefully calculated to intensify with value production.

I could easily have adopted the ideology of this cabal. Why I did not, and at what cost, is perhaps a topic for a future paper. I remember my “Junior Fellow” days at Massey College in Toronto, a site of higher learning patterned after All Souls College, University of Oxford, that reproduced and maintained the cognitive command structures of the Canadian ruling elite. Swaddled in my academic gown (required for all meals), I would drink port at high table dinners (mainly to distract me from the smell of wood polish) with brown-nosed boffins and beanpole and bemused graduates from Upper Canada College, who seemed to have been born with a charismatic self-possession and system-loyal élan much like the votaries of capitalism that taught them. These slick-witted harbingers of a capitalist technofuture, this microclass of the Canadian power elite, would captivate us with topsy-turvy and scintillating stories of their champagne-drench lives that flowed effortlessly from their mirth-filled prime of life, forcing those of us who had shaved their adolescent faces in the porcelain basins of working-class apartments to palisade our dreams behind looming towers of regret.

We were certainly no match for those inflated chests sporting velvet vests and perfectly tailored suits cavorting raucously with fellow members of  Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, or the Piers Gaveston Society, whose years of sumptuous debauchery had fine-tuned their systems so that they accommodate eye-popping amounts of  MDMA or cocaine – much more than the lads in our neighborhood could boast. No matter, we wouldn’t have looked good in tails or straw boaters and alcohol induced vomit is difficult to clean from hand wire embroidered bullion patch pocket crests.  Besides, our Canadian accents would certainly have clashed at Eton, Winchester or Harrow. We didn’t even pose pretentiously for pictures on stone staircases in inner courtyards, descend our private parts into the heads of dead pigs in David Cameron fashion, nor drink ourselves senseless in pubs where the damage we caused would be paid for in cash. Perhaps life would have been different had there been a Canadian equivalent of The Tudor Room at the Manor or The Bridge in Oxford.

Later in life I was fortunate enough to be able to replant my bread crumb memories in new, subversive soil away from the imperialist nostalgia of the Canadian haute bourgeoisie. Out of the rubble of the world-shaking revolution of 1968 had emerged counter-memories that helped some of us to challenge our sabotaged lives and reorganize patterns of political subjectivization and resistance. True, many of these counter-narratives were captured in a sound-byte rebelliousness and expressed in guerrilla-style readymades, but the zeitgeist of revolution was unceasing in its power to illuminate the hierarchies of power and privilege that served to stabilize the social system. Those memories were still there in the 1980s when I needed them. It was this history that helped me to shake off the cigar and brandy days of my ‘higher’ learning. Today I don’t need a barstool nostalgia or acid kickback to dial back the years and remember the counter-narratives that guided my life in 1968. The red bones of my memories suffice and there is enough foot-room in my mind to find the right ones. And there is also the raised part of my forehead, courtesy of the Metropolitan Police flashlights my skull encountered repeatedly in a jail cell when I was nineteen.

The Macrostructural Unconscious

…As Peter Hudis and other Marxist humanists have argued, the drive to increase material wealth is not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is the drive to increase value – which is not the same as material wealth. It is important to understand that wealth is a physical quantity that has limits to its expansion whereas value (i.e., surplus value or profit) is a non-physical quality that can be expanded indefinitely. The creation of more millionaires does not mean there will be less poor; the truth is more likely to be the reverse.

In our struggles alongside our many comrades – ecosocialist, anarchist, socialist feminist, autonomist Marxist, and Marxist humanist – we must work together to fight the transnationalist capitalist state in all of its hydra-headed relations of exploitation and alienation by developing a philosophy of praxis.

In their struggle for a social alternative to capitalism’s value form of labour, revolutionary critical educators have challenged the lissome grandeur of postmodern theory and its fear of universal values and its inevitable retreat behind the tombstones of a sepulchral bargain-bin secularism. Whether revolutionary critical pedagogy’s push for a socialist alternative will make an impact on the field of education in the near future is unclear, especially at a time in which right-wing populism and fascism continue to predominate across the political horizon of the country.

It is acutely painful to reflect upon the tragic irony of the current crisis of education that leads Stan Karp (2011) to characterize it as follows: “If you support testing, charters, merit pay, the elimination of tenure and seniority, and control of school policy by corporate managers you’re a ‘reformer.’ If you support increased school funding, collective bargaining, and control of school policy by educators you’re a ‘defender of the status quo.’” Largely as a result of huge marketing campaigns in the corporate media, it is the ideological rightwing that now claims the mantle of reformer and progressive teachers and defenders of public schooling have been placed on the defensive. The rightwing educational reform movement, so dangerous to our democratic pretentions, must erelong bear potential surplus value returns for the capitalist class. That’s the whole point. Critically-minded educators are not so easily fooled and we will not meekly and fruitlessly submit to the tenor of the times.

Decades ago I sounded a little-heeded alarm that urban education in the U.S. increasingly was susceptible to the intentions of neoliberal capitalism and a jaundiced corporate-infused perspective. Today, in a world where capitalism has monopolized our collective imagination as never before, befouled our bodies through a frenzied pursuit of narcotizing consumption and turned education itself into a subsector of the economy, such a remark would be read by most critical educators as a gross understatement. Because today, more than at any other time in human history, the perils of capitalism have been exposed. It is no longer controversial among many of us in the teaching profession to acknowledge that “governments seek to extend power and domination and to benefit their primary domestic constituencies—in the U.S., primarily the corporate sector” (Chomsky, 2013).

U.S. democracy once lit up the sky of the American dream like a glitter helix launched from a girandole. With the advent of neoliberal capitalism and the success of groups such as Citizens United and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the seams of democracy have been ripped asunder. The contradictions that for so long have been held in check by the violent equilibrium of market regulation have unchained themselves and as a consequence the mythic unity of capitalism and democracy has been exposed as a trussed-up fraud.

The shards of a dashed hope have been sent spinning like whistling bottle rockets into a firmament of sputtering stroboscopic dreams and titanium salutes, under a red glare and bombs bursting in air. The pursuit of democracy has given way to the waging of war, and there certainly is unanimous agreement worldwide that the U.S. “does war” better than any country in history. Yet in the academy, few have chosen to speak about the crisis of democracy and instead are self-admiringly recapitulating all the articles they wrote before getting tenure, that is, before they decided to overhaul what is left of the pursuit of knowledge so that it fits better into the corporate brand of their institution. They even might be working on university-Pentagon joint partnerships on crowd control or cyber warfare. The good professors don’t bother to offer up any excuses for not jumping into the public fray other than maintaining that they are still collecting “data” and aren’t ready to make any judgment calls about politics.

As I have written elsewhere about some of the professional researchers that I have met in the academy over the past twenty years:

Many of my academic colleagues, looking for some final vantage point from which to interpret social life, remain politically paralyzed, their studied inaction resulting from a stubborn belief that if they wait long enough, they surely will be able to apprise themselves of a major, messianic, supra-historical discourse that will resolve everything. Presumably this ne plus ultra discourse will arrive on the exhausted wings of the Angel of History! There seems to be some naïve belief that a contemporary codex will eventually be announced (no doubt by a panjandrum at an Ivy League university) which will explain the quixotic mysteries and political arcana of everyday life. At this moment intellectuals will have the Rosetta Stone of contemporary politics in their possession, enabling them to know how to act decisively under any and all circumstances. Establishment academics under the thrall of technocratic rationality act as if the future might one day produce a model capitalist utopia in the form of an orrery of brass and oiled mahogany whose inset spheres and gear wheels, humming and whirring like some ancient clavichord melody, will reveal without a hint of dissimulation the concepts and practices necessary to keep the world of politics synchronized in an irenic harmony. All that would be necessary would be to keep the wheelworks in motion. (McLaren, 2008, pp. 474–475)

The tendrils of capitalism’s poisonous vine are spreading into all the spaces and virtual spaces of potential capital accumulation and we need cadres of teachers to speak out and to create spaces where their students can assume roles as razor-tongued public instigators for the social good. Globalized finance capitalism is the most widespread authoritarian structure in the history of civilization, giving the rich even greater riches and forcing the dispossessed to set up markets on moonlit streets to augment their exiguous incomes. We might be living in what is now called the “age of greed” but we should not be fooled that the current crisis of capital is linked mainly to the greed of corporate capitalists captured by Hollywood figures such as Gordon Gekko, since we believe that it is endemic to the system of capitalism itself….

The free-market economy is championed as the protector of democracy, like the fierce Chinese guardians or warrior attendants in a Tang dynasty temple. They protect us from any competing alternative, such as dreaded socialism. The new citizens of this tilt-a-whirl domain of American politics remain functionally unaware, studiously refusing to see capitalism as a means of the exploitation of the labour-power of the worker and even less as accumulation by dispossession. As David Harvey (2010) puts it, accumulation by dispossession “is about plundering, robbing other people of their rights … capitalism is very much about taking away the right people have over their natural resources” (Harvey, 2010, p. 99). Accumulation by dispossession is interrelated with neoliberalization or institutional reforms that are premarket and pro-privatization and against state interventions into the marketplace and so on….

Those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should keep quiet about the barbarism we are witnessing all around us. Be my guest and keep complaining about violence in schools, and how poorly teachers teach, and how immigrants are spoiling the country, but we don’t need your advice. Can’t you hear the earth shuddering in agony beneath your spit-and-polished jackboots? People aren’t falling on the streets like spent bullets in crime ridden neighborhoods. Violence is more than a metaphor. People are falling in the street because they have been shot with bullets! And these are disproportionately people of color. Is it so difficult to connect this destruction systematically to capitalist relations of production rather than simply foisting it off as the result of greedy capitalists (we are tired of psychologizing what is clearly a structural crisis built into the dynamics of value production under capitalism)?

Present attempts at resisting the hydra-headed beast of capital are frozen like dried blood on history’s stale proscenium where we dream our dreams and are dreamt in an overcrowded theater of destruction. In this country of strangers, the scourge of capitalism is too infrequently accompanied by a momentous uprising by the oppressed but instead is met by isolated individuals enshrouded in a cynical resignation and a calcified hope, resulting in a paralyzing quietism awaiting its own dispersion. We will not be bequeathed another Che Guevara or Paulo Freire who will lead the fated triumph of the hardscrabble workers over the succulent and savvy bourgeoisie, who will transubstantiate the graveyards of political defeat into a victory march of the Left, or who will bring us into a world of unbearable beauty and harmony, a land of Cockaigne devoid of Breughel’s slothful peasants. Those days are gone. But we do have Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, and we should acquaint ourselves of their gifts of courage.

In our world of hand sanitizers, willfully disenfranchised youth, high-gloss reality shows, television commentaries on world events that have as much analytical depth as sparkle dust sprayed from a vintage-style perfume bottle, and benign varieties of televised adolescent rebellion with fast-food marketing tie-ins, we try in vain to find a way out. But that proves as difficult as asking your eyeball to stare back at itself. Or Benjamin’s Angel of History to turn her head and face the future. Yet even against logo-swathed backdrops and image-based commentaries of daunting corporate grandeur, we keep ransacking Marx’s tomb, especially when an economic crisis hits that demands some kind of explanation not afforded by the pundits of the Wall Street Journal. Everywhere it seems—perhaps especially in education—you find Marxism being derided with a leering flippancy or galvanized indifference. You can’t escape it, even in coffee shops for the urban literati, as a recent visit to a popular Los Angeles establishment taught me. There, among the hard-nosed espresso drinkers, a stranger approached me waving heavy hands. Bobbing over a thin nose and pair of succulent lips were a pair of tarsier eyes, as if they had been clumsily plopped onto plump, fleshy stumps that sprung out ominously from deep within his sockets. Escaping his overly caffeinated oral cavity was a stage-whispered admonition delivered with requisite theatrical intensity: “Oh, you’re McLaren, the one that writes that Marxist shit.” I responded with a simple retort, as quickly as if I had rehearsed it in advance: “I assume you’re already so full of capitalist shit that I wonder how you noticed mine.” Today’s capitalism is spawned in a petri dish of virtual Faustian space, as dank and suffocating as the inside of a hot air balloon. Capitalism dresses itself up in corset-like vocabularies of common sense. It can adapt to and absorb any language – even the language of the Left. It works its discourse in the service of its self-expansion, having no master to serve but itself. Its favorite language is the language of mystification, of progress, of democracy. By fashioning itself out of the contradictory logic of progressivism and traditionalism, it can confuse and obfuscate unobstructed…

The discourse of the state – that positions the “other” as irredeemably evil, as a monolithic alien species that is so barbaric as not to merit the rule of law – along with the functional existence of the state as an instrument of exploitation and repression, clearly need to be overcome. How can this be possible? Cold War ideology prevails and U.S. citizens in the main bear the ideological marks of their times. The term “American empire” is being championed by the Right out of a sense of noblesse oblige – to be part of an empire is a duty and a responsibility that comes with being the leader and protector of the “free” world. With their paternalistic toy trumpets, and their willingness to jettison their critical faculties in favor of embracing an iron certainty and ineffable faith that the United States has a providential mission in the world, the far right boasts that free-market democracy has to be delivered to the far corners of the earth (by bombing runs, if necessary) if civilization is to prevail on the planet…

Is it too late to re-enchant the world, to remold the planet in mytho-poetic terms, to create a past dreamtime, a mystical milieu in the present, to give ourselves over to dream divinities, to live in the eternal moment, to mold sacred totems from the clay of the riverbed? And while we ponder this possibility, the armies of the night march on, sneering at the pious surrender of the oppressed.

Because through the medium of experience, the ego-driven individual is mistaken as the source of social practices, this process of misidentification has become a capitalist arche-strategy that marginalizes collectivity and protects the individual as the foundation of entrepreneurial capitalism. As a consequence, the well-being of the collectivity is replaced by the “politics of consumption” that celebrates the singularities of individuals by valorizing the desire to obtain and consume objects of pleasure. Experience in this view becomes non-theoretical and beyond the realities of history. This is why we need to locate all human experience in a world-historical frame, that is, within specific social relations of production. Revolutionary critical pedagogy, as we have been trying to develop it, attempts to create the conditions of pedagogical possibility that enable students to see how, through the exercise of power, the dominant structures of class rule protect the practices of the powerful from being publicly scrutinized as they appropriate resources to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many (Ebert & Zavarzadeh, 2008).

While we do not seek to live life with caprice or with an insouciant smirk, our project is anti-normative as long as schools seek to normalize students to an unjust world of stultifying toil for the labouring classes. We challenge this natural attitude of capitalist schooling and its moralizing machinery by climbing out of our spiritually dehydrated skin and re-birthing ourselves into relations of solidarity and comunalidad. Critical pedagogy has done much to inspire dissidents to engage culture in the agonistic terrain of the cultural imaginary so as to break with dominant relationships of power and privilege through forms of pedagogical subversion. While some dimensions of subversion have led to interventions and new communal relationships of solidarity and struggle, others have been dominated by forms of postmodern self-absorption and self-fashioning where the embattled agent engages in acts of symbolic inversion within the contradictions of consumptionist capitalism. What interest me are the ethical imperatives driving such acts of subversion. Is the protagonist subject not codetermined by discourses of resistance and possibility, as Henry Giroux might put it? If this is the case, then I would argue that within the field of critical pedagogy today, there is a disproportionate focus on the critique of identity formation at the expense of examining and finding alternatives to existing spheres of social determination that include institutions, social relations of production, ideologies, practices and the cultural imaginary – all of which are harnessed to value production.

Solving the Problem of Inequality: The Market Is Not a Sustainable or Liveable Community

…If we want to participate in educational reform, then it becomes necessary to challenge the proponents of the competitive market whose corporate outlawry is driving the reform initiatives of education today. We barely can distinguish what augments and entrenches corporate power today from the brutal logic that powers the narco-cartels that wreak havoc throughout Mexico.

Today we not only are besieged by a world-historical crisis of capitalism, we also face a crisis of human decency. The future proffers an ominous stillness, an illusion already sucked dry by gluttonous speculators and the new transnational robber barons.

We in the field of education should be gravely disquieted by the power of this claim. We see the wake of capitalism’s devastation in the privatization of public schooling following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast to myriad ways that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top transform public schooling into investment opportunities – not to mention trying to turn New Orleans into a city of white yuppies. We see it in the retooling of colleges in order to serve better financial and military-industrial interests, in overuse and exploitation of contingent faculty, in the growth of for-profit degree-granting institutions and in rising tuition and student debt (student debt in the U.S. now exceeds that of credit cards, totaling over $1 trillion; see Cauchon, 2011), not to mention the assault on critical citizenship in favor of consumer citizenship. The crisis of the “free” enterprise system today, the naked money-grabbing practices that might accurately be described as gangster capitalism, or drive-by capitalism, lacks any sincere connection with human dignity and is reconstructed as a mere “greed-is-good” formalism and proffered to the American people as self-protection: a harsh and unavoidable reality of the times. This legally unrestrained self-initiative that enables all barriers to the market to be dismantled in the interests of profit making by the few is built upon a negative definition of freedom – the freedom from having to enter into the necessary conversations with humanity that permit the full development of human capacities for fairness and social justice.

Not only is this an acceptance of the current distribution of wealth and the transvaluation of social into individual needs, it is also the freedom to enjoy your wealth and success without having to accept any moral obligation for the suffering of others. Expenditures of any kind must be made from the principle of self-interest and individual advantage, and in proportion to that advantage – and all such brutal vindictiveness of the capitalist class towards the 99 percent is egregiously justified under the term “human nature.” People come to be judged solely in terms of human capital: for their economic contribution as measured by the market. There is no motive of social amelioration. Further, in times of crisis, it is the bankers and huge corporations that can “socialize” their risk by transferring it to the taxpayers who are used by the government to bail them out.

But the market is not a community. It is only possible to realize your humanity if you are educated in an authentic community. And how do we achieve true community? Only by analyzing and understanding the distinction between how the social system understands itself, and how it exists in objectivity, that is in reality. In other words, only by working through false consciousness towards critical consciousness, towards a more dialectical understanding of how capitalism affects the very way we approach social problems, including educational problems. At present there is a huge disconnect between the two; that is, there is a tremendous gap between how U.S. society comprehends itself and how it is structured to be co-extensive with inequality. In a community, social wealth is distributed by means of the principle of equality in response to need. For me, education is about creating community in a society that has forgotten the meaning of the term.

Critical pedagogy is strongly assertive of its epistemologies and premises, its obligations and its practices, as well as its normative prescriptions and prohibitions with respect to engaging with others in the world. Even though critical pedagogy has been on the scene for decades, it is still argued by many in the educational establishment that the problem with working-class families has to do with the culture of poverty, in which it is assumed that there is an egregious deficit in working-class culture when read against the values and cultural capital of bourgeois culture.

But for critical educators, this is taking what is fundamentally a structural problem – capitalist-produced inequality – and turning it into a cultural problem: the problems of values, attitudes and the lack of high culture and preponderance of low or middlebrow culture within working-class families, which suggests erroneously that class privilege and educational success have something to do with individual merit and intrinsic self-worth. It reflects a ruthlessly instrumentalized and paternalistic presumption implicit in contemporary school reform approaches, namely, that the poor lack the proper ‘civilized’ attitudes and cosmopolitan values to help them realize their full humanity and succeed in consumer capitalist society.

Of course there is a racial dimension to all of these measurable inequities when examining the statistical facts of gaps between the outcomes of students disaggregated by race and affluence and comparing them with the statistical facts of disproportionate numbers of teachers among races. Moreover, when you compare these to the realities of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the resegregation of schools, we see a national trend. Consider the following statement from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2009):

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.

Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales): The Illogicality of the Market

The fact that the logic of the market is a regulatory principle of life within capitalist societies is now commonplace. Over time, this regulatory principle has led the state to react harshly to fomenting opposition, especially from the current generation whose futures seem, in the words of Henry Giroux, disposable. This has led to various incarnations of “soft fascism” that we saw increase exponentially throughout the U.S., especially after September 11, 2001, and the global slump of 2008. We have witnessed the militarization of the police, the often fatal assaults on black men by the police, harsh sentences for whistleblowers, etc. and the push to privatize public spaces such as schools and universities where dissent can be more effectively controlled by private owners and conservative and well-heeled boards of trustees. Clearly, the corporatocracy is worried about political dissent. Capitalism is in the process of reconstituting itself transnationally. And those who are hit hardest are learning from alternative sites in the social media to see through the veil of deception and lies of the corporatocracy. They know that the state is recalibrating its plans for reacting to hostile opposition from the poor, from students saddled with debt, and from those who are committed to the process of democratization in all spheres of public and private life. They have been aided by critical educators who are intent on helping their students read both the word and the world dialectically, recognizing power as a constitutive dimension of both pedagogy and politics.

Revolutionary critical pedagogy has attempted to give substance to the lie that the U.S. is fighting evil empires around the globe in order to protect its vital interests, interests that must be met for it to continue as the prime defender of the ‘free’ world. Critical educators assume the position that equality is both a precondition and outcome for establishing community, and a community is a precondition for deep democracy. This demands that students question the various roles played by the U.S. on the stage of history and nurture a radical imagination where they can consider other forms of organizing society and collectively providing for themselves and others their economic, social, cultural and spiritual needs.

Critical Pedagogy

…A revolutionary critical pedagogy, then, is both a reading practice where we read the word in the context of the world, and a practical activity where we write ourselves as subjective forces into the text of history – but this does not mean that making history is only an effect of discourse, a form of metonymy, the performative dimension of language, a rhetorical operation, a tropological system. No, reality is more than textual self-difference. Praxis is directed at engaging the word and the world dialectically as an effect of class contradictions. A critical pedagogy is a way of challenging the popular imaginary (which has no “outside” to the text) that normalizes the core cultural foundations of capitalism and the normative force of the state. In other words, the ruling capitalist ideology tells us in numerous ways that there is no alternative to capitalist social relations…

Critical pedagogy is illuminated by an insight made foundational in the work of Paulo Freire: that politics and pedagogy are not an exclusive function of having the right knowledge via some kind of “ah-ha” awakening of the revolutionary soul. Critical consciousness is not the root of commitment to revolutionary struggle but rather the product of such a commitment. An individual does not have to be critically self-conscious in order to feel the obligation to help the poor and the dispossessed. In fact, it is in the very act of struggling that individuals become critically conscious and aware. Praxis begins with practice. This is the bedrock of revolutionary critical pedagogy’s politics of solidarity and commitment. While radical scholarship and theoretical ideas are important – extremely important – people do not become politically aware and then take part in radical activity. Rather, participating in contentious acts of revolutionary struggle creates new protagonistic political identities that become refined through theoretical engagement and refreshed in every moment by practices of critical reflexivity. Critically informed political identities do not motivate revolutionary action, but rather develop as a logical consequence of such action. And the action summoned by revolutionary critical educators is always heterogeneous, multifaceted, protagonistic, democratic and participatory – yet always focalized – anti-capitalist struggle…

For the guardians of our cognitive plutocracy, making critical interventions into the lives of the oppressed is rendered, if not unacceptable, then at least less legitimate than developing rubrics, criteriologies, architectonics or systems of intelligibility for studying others or than itemizing epistemological issues that might be inherently problematic for unspecified research protocols. In other words,

the neoliberal academy and its clerisy wedded to the establishment of official channels and the principles of the new managerialism as rule-creators, rule-enforcers and moral entrepreneurs trained for appropriate decisional responses, has brutally cleaved dialectical engagement into two, deracinating its hermeneutical potential by focusing only on one half of what constitutes the dialectic of critical consciousness; such a brutal sundering of the potential for critical analysis is accomplished by validating theory as a discrete entity that should stand on its own, as somehow existing in antiseptic isolation from its dialectical companion: practice. This prohibits any real critical and transformative engagement—any authentic praxis—to emerge from collaboration with living and breathing human beings and promotes a radical disjuncture with everyday life.  This is the very opposite of how a university should function. (McLaren, in press)

 As I shared during a recent discussion of the neoliberal university:

Years ago, it was Paulo Freire and Chavista activists in Venezuela who taught me the importance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy, that is, the necessity of understanding praxis as the foundation and bellwether of theory. In this instance, theoretical clarity is not necessary before we engage in an active living commitment to the poorest and most marginalized in society. We must live our politics in fidelity with our obligation to help marginalized and oppressed communities before we can arrive at a correct or orthodox understanding of critical theory. That does not mean that theoretical understanding is unimportant. Far from it. Being informed by relevant critical theories admittedly is very crucial in social justice education as these theories can help to refine and fine-tune concrete practices of intervening in the world rather than simply positioning us as passive observers trained only to transpose reality onto a factory foreman’s ledger and judge it on the basis of inputs and outputs. But to restrict our theories to or value them mainly for their sumptuous appearance in high status journals is to reduce the role of the educator to that of an academic. (McLaren, in press)

Not all, but many academics see their time spent on university campuses as part of a career and in doing so excise their subjectivity from any ethical commitments to and activist interventionist involvement with others. They often remain professionally cautious and walk tremulously past proscribed domains of discourse that involve, for instance, participatory action research-methodologies that might have inveigled their way into their research domains as doctoral students. They refrain from taking any adversarial stance towards capitalism and avoid visiting those research enclaves populated by scholars who agitate for social transformation in their scholarly work. They studiously avoid taking a position that might suture their subjectivity to a larger political framework that commits them to addressing the need of the oppressed. They do so by, among other things, dogmatically defending their work under the banner of investigative objectivity. They reframe, rephrase, resituate and rearticulate aspects of their work that might create a “red flag” to their superiors so that their research becomes acceptable to more conventional canons of scientific research concerning the vexed questions of what is possible, what is politically safe and what is ‘really’ real in the field of social science research. Their fidelity to the ideology of materialism – while not a bad thing in itself – sometimes becomes so fetishized and triumphalist in a metaphysical sense that it automatically positions them to reject indigenous ways of knowing and the cosmovisions of non-Western, colonized peoples.  Especially when dealing with those in their department who serve as research initiatrixes, new faculty are poised to be uncomplainingly seduced by those systems of interpretation that predominate in the field, those that have been academically certified and have been granted the imprimatur of the sanctioning body of regnant scientific authorities.

A critical pedagogy is about the hard work of building community alliances, of challenging school policy, of providing teachers with alternative and oppositional teaching materials. It has little to do with awakening the “revolutionary soul” of students – this is merely a re-fetishization of the individual and the singular under the banner of the collective and serves only to bolster the untruth fostered by capitalist social relations and postpone the answer to the question: Is revolution possible today? It falls into the same kind of condition that critical pedagogy had been originally formulated to combat. It diverts us from the following challenge: Can we organize our social, cultural and economic life differently so as to transcend the exploitation that capital affords us?

…Within US capitalist society, academics continue to hide behind a politics of neutrality. I believe that it is not only possible but imperative that academics and researchers make a “commitment” as public intellectuals to a specific action or consider as an “obligation” their actions regarding the relationship between a specific premise and their concluding interpretations and explanations. That, of course, depends upon whether or not they agree to consider both creatively and dialectically the idea that our interpretation of the world is inseparable from our transformation of the world – both are linked socially and ethically. As such, a dialectical and critical self-consciousness of the relationship between being and doing (or being and becoming) becomes a part of the very reality one is attempting to understand and requires an ethical rather than an epistemological move, which is why ethics always precedes epistemology in the field of critical pedagogy. Only an ethics of compassion, a commitment to ending the horror of neoliberal capitalism through the creating of a social universe outside of value production, and respect for diversity can guide us out of the neoliberal capitalist impasse that we face. Such critical self-consciousness steeled by a commitment to the oppressed becomes revolutionary if, for instance, your analysis is placed within the class perspective of the oppressed, that is, within the class perspective of the proletariat, cognitariat, precariat, etc. Logic and reason must be anchored by values and virtues that are grounded in an obligation to help the most powerless and those who suffer most under the heel of capitalism.

As I have maintained elsewhere:

We need to address these questions urgently. Especially since recent research indicated that young people born between 1980 and 1994 are more polarized politically that Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers, with millennials more likely identifying as conservatives, compared to the 1980s (Howard, 2016). In fact, 23% of millennials are identified as leaning far right (Howard, 2016). We need to understand better how universities shape and are shaped by disciplinary regimes of power and privilege that often overshadow their critical role? Here I am referring to courses, programs, faculty hires and tenure decisions that include criteria such as race, class, gender, disability, and LGBT issues. But we should also be concerned with how universities in our society contribute to the social reproduction of capitalism with its entangled antagonisms such as racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, white privilege and the colonial imperatives of the white settler state. We need to ask: What is the source of our responsibility as public pedagogues and activists who reject the consumer model of education and who, as agents and agitators of social change, view our role as cultural workers carrying out our decolonizing projects in spaces both inside and outside the university? How can we better understand the role played by universities in the production, circulation and consumption of cognitive and informational capitalism? How is academic labor and productivity assessed in a setting where digital education and communication technologies are blurring the distinction between students’ and professors’ professional and personal lives in our “always on” culture? What role do universities play today in advancing and legitimizing capitalist development? What role do they play in strengthening the military industrial complex and the development of cyber technologies used to control information, in creating ideological submission for the masses to particular political and cultural views, or in supporting research by biotech companies committed to creating weapons technologies used to increase the “kill ratio” of our military? How are faculty and students engaged in or prevented from making decisions about how university financial investments are made? Are decisions about student tuition costs and admissions arrived at collectively? How is value produced in the process of academic labor and how does this affect both permanent and adjunct faculty as well as graduate assistants? How is freedom of speech protected in a world where social media is obliterating the distinction between public and private lives? These are only a few of the crucial questions that must be raised. (McLaren, in press)

…The falcon is “turning in the widening gyre,” beware! Do you not hear Yeats’ anguished cry as “things fall apart,” as the center collapses like a sunken lung? Beware the Spiritus Mundi, blackened with pitch and winter catarrh, carrying portents from lost scrolls hidden in the damp abode of billionaires’ yachts. A new messiah is being spawned from the curdling afterbirth of history’s raw defeat, its spine bent forward like a twisted compass, pointing to Silicon Valley. This “rough beast,” this “rising Sphinx” with a smile of infinite bandwidth and burning fiber optic eyes encoded with apocalypse wades slowly through deep deposits of NSA data, gleefully sinking in the muck of its own creation. It is up to us to fight this beast and to fight it with every means that we have. I think it was the poet June Jordan who said, “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for,” a line made famous in a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Well, what can I say except, “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” The time for the struggle is now. And it is a struggle that will tax both our minds and bodies. It will be fought in the seminar rooms, in the picket lines, and on the streets. Let’s get ready for a revitalized revolutionary critical pedagogy…

A revolutionary critical pedagogy operates from an understanding that the basis of education is political and that spaces need to be created where students can imagine a different world outside of the capitalist law of value, where alternatives to capitalism and capitalist institutions can be discussed and debated, and where dialogue can occur about why so many revolutions in past history turned into their opposite (McLaren & Rikowski, 2000). It looks to create a world where social labour is no longer an indirect part of the total social labour but a direct part of it, where a new mode of distribution can prevail not based on socially necessary labour time but on actual labour time, where alienated human relations are subsumed by transparent ones, where freely associated individuals can work towards a permanent revolution, where the division between mental and manual labour can be abolished, where patriarchal relations and other privileging hierarchies of oppression and exploitation can be ended, where we can truly exercise the principle ‘from each according to his or her ability and to each according to his or her need’, where we can traverse the terrain of universal rights unburdened by necessity, moving sensuously and fluidly within that ontological space where subjectivity is exercised as a form of capacity-building and creative self-activity within the social totality (see Hudis, 2012).

…We continue to struggle in our educational projects to eliminate rent-seeking and for-profit financial industries; we seek to distribute incomes without reference to individual productivity, but rather according to need; and we seek to substantially reduce hours of labour and make possible, through socialist general education, a well-rounded and scientific and intercultural development of the young (Reitz, 2013). This involves a larger epistemological fight against neoliberal and imperial common sense, and a grounding of our critical pedagogy in a concrete universal that can welcome diverse and particular social formations (San Juan, 2009) joined in class struggle. It is a struggle that has come down to us not from the distant past, but from thoughts that have ricocheted back to us from the future.

Photo: Tumblr


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Reitz, Charles. (2013). Introduction. In Crisis and commonwealth: Marx, Marcuse, McLaren. (pp. 1-18) Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

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[A longer version of this essay first appeared in Critical Education 7(8), June 15, 2016. Available here.]

Peter McLaren
is Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director of The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice at Chapman University. His most recent book is Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution (Peter Lang, 2015).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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