Critical Pedagogy and the Decolonial Option: Challenges to the Inevitability of Capitalism
Lilia D. Monzó
Monzó, L.D. & McLaren, P. (2014). Critical Pedagogy and the Decolonial Option: Challenges to the Inevitability of Capitalism. Policy Futures in Education, 12(4), 513-525.
Critical Pedagogy and the Decolonial Option: Challenges to the Inevitability of Capitalism
In a lot strewn with plastic wrappers and Styrofoam cups, where salt grass and jimsonweed has become tainted with methane gas and coated with toxic tar oozing from dank, contaminated soil, old men bent by time and lost hope, whose wizened features have seen better days, stoop over the stiffening vapors in allegorical gestures of defeat. Such gestures are growing more commonplace in a dystopian world that has now apparently become proverbial.
Church doors remain open on weekends, feeding lines of hungry families. Public services, once the hallmark of an illusory democracy, are being dilapidated. The pretense is apparently no longer necessary. Animal species, marked as easily disposable commodities for consumption and experimentation, suffer unimaginable abuses and extinctions in a seemingly endless quest to maximizing corporate wealth. Our biosphere no longer bristles with indignation at the pollution, exploitation and destruction of its natural resources that have been recklessly fracked from our earth —it is in a state of fully-fledged revolt. We know from geophysicists that earth-human systems are catastrophically unstable as a result of collective carbon profligacy (Klein, 2013).
Poverty-ridden communities, immigrant and refugee populations (sometimes living in hiding), women laboring in illegal sweatshops and legal ones (known as maquilas), young girls tortured in sex-trafficking operations – pockmark a planet suffused with precarity and humiliation cast by the dark spectrum of capitalism that encircles the globe like some famished chthonic serpent. We in the USA are participating in the bounty collected from across all landscapes, domestic and foreign, that have been ravaged by capital (Eglitis, 2004). In the midst of the near eclipse of an ethic for human rights and dignity, we are evidencing the centripetal acceleration of capitalism separating out the rich from the poor, leaving gargantuan social inequalities in its wake.
If the USA’s economy has grown from 1983 to 2010 but the bottom 60 percent of Americans actually lost wealth during this time, what does this tell you about the workings of the capitalist economy (Srour, 2013)? Still powerful national corporate lobbies are working tirelessly to negatively affect labor protection laws, including lower wages and labor standards. Workers confront their seemingly unassailable corporate masters with picket signs because they are now victims of wage theft, unable to recover wages that they have already earned. Child labor protection and paid sick leave are currently under attack. Anti-strike laws are condemning workers to accept a dehumanizing fate (Srour, 2013).
There are big winners in the horrific conditions we’ve described – the transnational capitalist class – yes, the 1 percent of the owning class that controls most of the wealth of the planet (Marshall, 2013; Robinson, 2013). The soul of humanity is being forged against their insatiable demand for wealth accumulation and associated power. They have bought themselves allies among governments and institutions that seemingly are willing to stop at nothing to protect capital interests. Human suffering has reached unprecedented proportions as the world’s major corporations have become transnational, making extraordinary windfalls off the cheap labor of the poor in the so called “third world” (Robinson, 2004).
The growth of overcapacity and overproduction leading to the falling profitability in manufacturing that began in the late 1960s has helped to spawn the hydra-headed beast of neoliberalism. In its effort to remain the world’s uncontested superpower, the USA is uniquely implicated in the world’s death toll as it continues to appoint itself the world’s “protector,” employing its military might against any and all dissent to capitalism’s “democracy,” that guarantor of “individual freedoms” for property holders and owners of the means of production. While denouncing human rights abuses in other countries under the banner of democracy, the USA is at the same time smuggling through the back door policies that deny American citizens their fundamental rights to privacy and dignity, as information is collected on every citizen via any and all communications systems and filed away for future use (Karlin, 2013). Like a Texas evangelical claiming Biblical inerrancy, the government is taking the position that its policies are infallible, that a providential history has been granted beforehand by the creator, making the USA the official sword arm of divine justice. Even conservative analysts are warning that the USA is becoming a rogue superpower that is viewed by many as the single greatest threat to their societies (Chomsky, 2013).
In the USA even the most exploited among the working classes continue to believe one of the most storied and shopworn meta-narratives of our society – that if they only work harder and focus their energies more strenuously, they can attain that allusive American Dream. The belief is so stubbornly durable that these same working and middle classes cling tenaciously to it even as they are becoming increasingly aware and proportionately incensed over the grotesque amassing of capital by the bankers, speculators, hedge funders, and monetarists at the backbreaking expense of the many. Its false promise reaches far outside its borders to ensnare immigrants from around the world but particularly Latin America to join the ranks of a highly exploitative and criminalized existence as America’s underclass. It does not escape our attention that, as the welfare state is being absorbed into the national security and surveillance state, pain and destruction are being commandeered predominantly against people of color.
Antagonisms implicated in and through contemporary social relations of capitalist production, such as racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, speciesism and ableism, have taken such oppressive proportions that they can easily be mapped to ascertain a person’s life chances and educational outcomes. While these antagonisms whose conditions of possibility have been set in motion by the motor force of capitalism’s social relations of production do not guarantee who will be the street vendors attempting to catch the eye of motorists who often choose to look the other way and who will be the CEOs of supranational enterprises for the production of medicines and food—empresas grannacionales—they can disclose a definite trend in terms of probabilities.
Our social, organic and psychological bodies are fashioned according to capital’s logic of commodification and the history into which we have been thrown. Against the polluted silence and awesome depravity of the ruling elite, whose signature legacy has always been craven violence against the other, we have witnessed the free-fall of socialist alternatives and a collective resignation that there is nothing beyond capitalism. Even as we vehemently reject this position, we find ourselves at a loss as to how to re-imagine a different future. Yet in the stillness of the night, we recognize the emptiness that signals our lost humanity, the unfreedom that is capitalism’s lifeblood and we strain soulward, searching beyond the surpassing otherness for a social universe free of privation and want where value is not attached to specific forms of capitalist labor. In these moments of self-reflection we reconnect with an unfaltering belief that our work is a product of the hope and vision that is trapped deep within the soul of humanity and that will one day undoubtedly lead us to a secular salvation.
The tenacity with which wealth and power are pursued at all costs will eventually prove to be capitalism’s undoing. Although the robber barons of this new Gilded Age feel in their hubris that the clamor of dissent is merely the dissolute echo of defeat, new social movements—many of them led by youth—are fighting for democratic social control over the economy. Disambiguating the ideological smog churned out by the corporate media, the clarion call of these youthful protesters that another world is possible has ignited a spark within the contemporary zeitgeist. From Argentina to Turkey and even in arguably the most treacherous imperialist capitalist power, the USA, we have witnessed protests, walkouts, sit-ins, hunger strikes, and other more violent rebellions (Zill, 2012).
Today’s transnational capitalism seems to have reached the universal totality that Karl Marx prophesized, reaching beyond political economy and penetrating all aspects of society, including the formation of ideologies and institutionalized social and cultural practices that serve to justify and maintain existing unequal relations of production and guarantee a global racial/ethnic labor force of which women, as sexualized objects, become even greater targets of a hyper-exploitation. Marx prophesized that this totalizing effect of capitalism was self-sufficient and self-propelling and would inevitably crash as human suffering became such that neither monetary or other forms of concessions nor warfare would deter the people from rising up to demand justice, giving way to the possibility of a new democratic sociality (Fischer, 1996).
It is important to recognize that the selling of labor power for a wage based on a universal standard of socially necessary labor time is a form of exploitation and that the immanent subjective force of the worker is integral to the delineation of the objective categories of capital. That is, the worker has the ability to affect her or his destiny through protagonistic agency, in so far as workers are able to make their voices heard in the context of developing a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism in all its forms, whether free market or statist.
Despite the fact that there exists a non debate about capitalism and a glacial indifference to the suffering of others, there exists amidst the chaos a ray of hope, of possibility, for if we believe that our reality today is but a contingent moment in history within which we find our future, then the prospect of transformation and the development of a humanity that can claim its rightful place in an ethical world becomes a discernible possibility.
This is a crucial time for critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970; McLaren & Kincheloe, 2007; Giroux, 2011) to make its mark, as people, especially students, may be more ready than ever before to question the status quo and to make demands that support their full development as human beings, including the right to live lives free of hunger, racism, patriarchy, and other antagonisms and to act in the world always with dignity. The hallmarks of critical pedagogy are its infusion of hope and its demand for collective social transformation through critical consciousness and a philosophy of praxis (Freire, 1970). Critical pedagogy offers that possibility through its insistent and incessant demand for collective action and a historical path for becoming (Darder, 2002). When we view ourselves as the makers of our history, we come to realize that, above all else, we must act in the service of our own humanity, even when we cannot always foresee or guarantee where our actions will take us (McLaren, 2012). Unfortunately, critical pedagogy is currently facing its own crisis as educators and others “domesticate dissent” (Macedo, Dendrinos & Gounari, 2003) by diluting its revolutionary goals in favor of solely focusing on improving conditions within the existing social structure or outright denouncing critical pedagogy for allegedly privileging class struggle over racism and other antagonisms.
While the first of these impediments is expected – any social movement of significance runs a high risk of being co-opted and used in a watered-down version to assist rather than subvert the status quo, the latter is one that troubles us deeply as we recognize both the theoretical and analytical strength of a revolutionary (Marxist) critical pedagogy (McLaren, 2006) but also embrace the premise, held by Freire (1970), that our liberation must be led by the oppressed as they have insights into the conditions of oppression that are unavoidably hidden from the oppressors:
This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. (pp. 44)
Here we wish to resuscitate the concept of the “committed intellectual.” We believe “committed intellectual” is an important figure of revolution (Fischman & McLaren, 2005) that is worth reinvoking at this particular historical juncture. The committed intellectual stands among the oppressed rather than for the oppressed but with a developed theoretical understanding of the social and material conditions of her oppression. Her commitment to the oppressed and to the cause of emancipation is fueled by both her personal experiences and her critical understandings of how these experiences are constructed out of the omnipotent relations of capitalist exploitation. However, the committed intellectual cannot rely on western theories alone for these are informed from a world vantage point of dominance, of the oppressors.
Here Marxism and critical pedagogy could use the helping hand of theories developed by our neighboring scholars to the south in América Latina and other scholars with similar geopolitical orientation, some of whom reside in the US. Decoloniality is a framework developed by scholars whose work is informed through a geopolitical location of marginality. Decoloniality frames the issues related to class struggle, patriarchy, racism, and other antagonisms through the perspectives of the indigenous groups that were first colonized in the Americas (Mignolo, 2009). From this theoretical standpoint an entangled colonial power matrix or patron de poder colonial was instantiated through a set of interrelated social and cultural characteristics by which the colonizers defined themselves, including White, male, heterosexual, Christian, among others, that were complexly related to capital accumulation and control of the means of production (Grosfoguel, 2011). This framing has important benefits to contemporary reality in which capitalism has become a transnational project whereby the global capitalist elite continue to be defined through these same social relations. However, we contend that the arguments against Marxism on the basis of being reductionist stem more from a failure to redefine the major contributions of Marx in light of contemporary understandings of culture and ideology. Ideology, culture, and subjectivities are accounted for in Marxism as conceived through and within the confines of the means and forces of production and the social relations that capitalism engenders (Ebert & Zavarzadeh, 2007).
We are concerned here with advancing a pedagogy of possibility, where our current state of social, cultural, economic, and political turmoil can be seen as a historical development of our own doing but one that envisions a future of possibility – the possibility to transform ourselves and our world into that which Marx described as the “whole [wo]man” whose creative labor would be aimed at the appropriation of nature beyond necessity toward the development of a humanist socialism.
The Crisis of World Capitalism
Marx believed emphatically that a new world order would develop. Capitalism, he predicted, was a system that would continue to expand and permeate not only material conditions of existence but also every aspect of social and cultural life. He insisted that capitalism in its totality would aggravate the gaping divide between the rich and the poor and create such unbearable human suffering that entire nations would harrow hell through war, disease and famine and would no longer be able to sequester by fear their unmanageable potential to resist capital and would eventually rise up to liberate themselves from their chains. Through peaceful demonstrations and through force, if necessary, the vast majority of the world would revolt against the injustices of the capitalist class (Fischer, 1996).
Indeed, the time has arrived when capitalism has reached a transnational scale unprecedented that has created an extreme polarization of wealth and associated social conditions. Marx posited that capitalism would become all encompassing, in that it would not only spread across the world like a virus unchained from the zombie laboratories of Resident Evil, but would also permeate all social and cultural aspects of human life. During the time that Marx wrote Capital only England had reached a mature form of industrial capitalism, and Marx accordingly emphasized the specificity of an enclosed localized system (Melksins Wood, 1997). It is this historical specificity that now serves our greater understanding of the current global capitalism in its totalizing formation. The prophesized condition of hyperexploitation and human suffering that afflict the poor across the world, especially the racialized world, has led to multiple uprisings in the past few years, often led by and/or sustained by student and other youth groups. These groups have broken free from the sterile antechamber of history and are seeking a world outside of the violence of capitalist value production under abstract universal labor time that robs them of their creativity and is indifferent to their abilities (Zill, 2012).
Youth rebellion is strongly associated with economic downturns and the effects of these downturns on current generations entering the job market. At this time, the current employment trends for youth are at an all time high around the world with a 40% unemployment rate in the Arab world, over 20% in Europe, and 18% in the US, with increased unemployed among youth of color (Zill, 2012). Issues related to education are also often highly associated with youth rebellion, especially as poor youth often see education as their only avenue for economic sustainability and the possibility of social mobility. The current rising costs of and federal cuts to education and related program along with skyrocketing student loan debt across the globe is a predicament that leads to increased uncertainty among youth for their futures and anger at the system.
Indeed, as predicted by Marx, the extreme frustration, fear, and anger that these extreme conditions of poverty and loss of opportunities create have led to a renewed vitality within the left as multiple and large scale uprisings have taken root within the past few years. Since 2010, we have witnessed numerous demonstrations, strikes, revolts, and wars across four continents (Zill, 2011). Notable among these were protests in France in 2010 against a 2-year raise in the retirement age that resulted in the closing of college campuses and over 700 high schools. A series of uprisings termed the Arab Spring were spawned soon thereafter when a poor college-educated young man who found himself selling fruits on the street for lack of employment set himself on fire in protest, sparking the Tunisian revolution that brought down the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January of 2011, primarily through the efforts of trade union rebels and unemployed youth called hittistes (those who lean against the wall). The success of the Tunisian rebels spawned numerous rebellions across Africa, including Egypt where hundreds of thousands successfully joined together to oust the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Inspired by the Arab Spring and Success in Egypt, hundreds of thousands joined to protest for economic and political reform in Spain and soon after in Greece where los Indignados took control of public squares across hundreds of cities. A mass demonstration of 40,000 people protesting education cuts followed in Dublin. Latin American youth soon took the streets as well with protests in Chile, Columbia, Brazil and Argentina. The most notable of these took place in Chile where hundreds of thousands of students, mostly teenagers, banded together to demand a variety of government policy changes, including rescuing public education from privatization.
Then in 2011, an unexpected demonstration of students and other youth claiming “we are the 99%” and calling themselves Occupy Wall Street gathered in New York City. The protest that was initiated both through public protest and through social media gained international attention and lasted a few months, ignited protests across the country with groups gathering to speak out against corporate greed and multiple economic concerns (Schneider, 2013).
In September, 2013, we witnessed the escalation of Syria’s 2-year civil war lead to a US-planned military strike against Syria, in condemnation of their use of chemical weapons. In a surprising twist, strong opposition from Congress, U.S. allies, and U.S. citizens, some of whom came out to protest, were successful in halting the plan, which developed into a peace accord that would have Syria document their chemical weapons arsenal and begin a process of relinquishing them (van Gelder, 2013).
Currently, New York residents are joining demonstrations in solidarity with Colombia’s Rebellion of the Ponchos, a protest by Colombia’s farm workers demanding greater support for small farms. New York protestors are not only showing support but also questioning NAFTA and raising awareness of the USA’s role in Colombia’s economy (Moreno, 2013).
Although not always successful and not always a noteworthy move in the direction of social democracy, these struggles reveal a growing restlessness with accepting the status quo and a desire for change that spans the world. It also reveals that new technologies of readily accessible internet and social media sites may potentially change the game, as movements across the world are watching and learning from each other, developing solidarity, and could potentially create global movements. This renewed globalized activity against systemic exploitation suggests an increased confidence in the power of collective struggle. This is an important historic moment, one that cannot be forsaken and that must be channeled and built upon to maintain activism and hope and promise.
As seen above, in the context of advanced global neoliberal capitalism, with extreme structural inequalities and social hierarchies, dissent cannot be controlled through hegemonic ideological formations alone. Ruling by consent breaks down when the ideas of the ruling class no longer remain the ruling ideas. The transnational capitalist class seeks to control the masses at all costs in order to maintain their position of power and wealth. Robinson (2013) maintains that in order to prepare for increasing social rebellion as a result of the crisis of capitalism worldwide, 21st century fascist formations are now merging the interests of government with those of the transnational class to organize a critical mass of historically privileged sectors of the global working class to support their interests. These sectors include working class Whites and the middle class. Their loyalty is secured through a heightened project of militarism, racism, extreme masculinization, homophobia, and a strategic persecution of scapegoats, which in the USA include immigrants and Muslims. This 21st century fascism normalizes warfare, violence, and criminalizes the poor and working classes in order to legitimize their exclusion from society and control any tendencies for subversion. We must recognize that this coercive exclusion is a highly racialized system of mass incarceration and policing people of color. Robinson states,
The displacement of social anxieties to crime and racialized «criminalized» populations in the United States and elsewhere dates back to the 1970s crisis. In the United States, in the wake of the mass rebellions of the 1960s, dominant groups promoted systematic cultural and ideological «law and order» campaigns to legitimize the shift from a social welfare to a social control state and the rise of a prison-industrial complex. «Law and order» came to mean the reconstruction and reinforcing of racialized social hierarchies and hegemonic order in the wake of the 1960s rebellions. This coincided with global economic restructuring, neo-liberalism and capitalist globalization from the 1970s and on. Now, criminalization helps displace social anxieties resulting from the structurally violent disruption of stability, security and social organization generated by the current crisis… In analytical abstraction, mass incarceration takes the place of concentration camps. The system subjects a surplus and potentially rebellious population of millions to concentration, caging and state violence. The so-called (and declared) «war on drugs» and «war on terrorism,» as well as the undeclared «war on gangs,» «war on immigrants» and «war on poor youth,» must be placed in this context. (The global police state, para. 5 & 6)
Robinson points out that although this coercive control serves to deter dissent it is at the same time a structural feature of neoliberal capitalism, independent of political objectives, since wars, mass incarceration, militarizing borders, developing global surveillance systems are highly profitable to the transnational capitalist class.
Marx’s genius was his joltingly acute understanding of the process of value production and how philosophers such as Hegel inverted the order of social relations so that real people became reduced to abstractions. Marx illuminated a path to understanding how capitalism (and today’s finance capitalism) is incompatible with liberal democracy, intensifying the estrangement endured by workers worldwide. Today’s transnational capitalism is all encompassing and certainly it has achieved longevity, the devastating effects of which Marx could not have fully appreciated. In examining capitalism today, it is useful to consider it from particular geopolitical perspectives.
On a global scale, the oppressed could be considered the indigenous peoples and tribal communities who have been dispossessed of land, language, ontologies and epistemologies. They are found across the world through diasporas and forced immigration (economic or political). On a national scale, the oppressed encompass the peoples of Latina America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa because their countries are often highly exploited through transnational economic production aimed at the benefit of transnational corporations, most of which are found in the United States and Western Europe. They are also racialized nations from the standpoint of the western episteme. Our goal in the next section is to engage a Marxist Critical Pedagogy with a Decolonial Perspective that prioritizes the positioning of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, where race and epistemology take a central position in the ways in which people understand and experience their world. In doing so, we emphasize the cultural, ideological, and material entanglement of colonized peoples.
Conceptualizing a Decolonial Marxism
Decoloniality (Mignolo, 2009; Grosfoguel, 2011) is a theoretical lens through which indigenous worldviews can claim a vantage point geopolitically. It refers to a physical, economic, racial, cultural and political positioning that affords a subaltern episteme, one that can be juxtaposed against the western worldview through an examination of power and the problematic of coloniality. Coloniality, as distinct from the concept of “colonization” that defined the centralized administration of the empire, is a world system of domination and exploitation that has never ceased to exist and is evidenced through economic and political structures, through racialization and gender relations, and within transnational, regional, and local contexts. From this perspective, coloniality was never a peripheral aspect of a nation-building empire that aimed to search for new markets for capital accumulation. Rather, coloniality refers to the episteme and deep assumptions of a world system that organized nations and peoples into categories of human and subhuman based on race, gender, religion, and other categories and exploited indigenous peoples for the benefit of the colonizers who claimed solely for themselves the “virtues” of intelligence and morality.
Ramón Grosfoguel (2011) points out that from the geopolitical vantage point of an indigenous woman in Las Americas, the conquistadores were not an isolated group that landed in Las Americas in 1942 and set out to amass capital for themselves and the motherland. Rather, those who arrived to “conquer” the “New World” comprised an “entangled package” that included specific people with particular characteristics, namely white, heterosexual Christian, able-bodied males who established “el patron de poder colonial” in opposition to the indigenous population by introducing and legitimizing through coercion the various systems of social relations that they brought with them, including a system of production that served their own and their empire’s wealth accumulation (Grosfoguel 2011).
Walter Mignolo (2009) argues that from a western perspective it is the deed that is emphasized while the doer of the deed or the “knowing subject” is ignored. The western “knowing subject” is usually hidden and thus made to appear politically neutral, objective, universal in reach, standing above any particular social or geo-political positioning. A subaltern approach focuses on both the subjects that act and those that are acted upon. Deeds do not just happen in the abstract, rather they happen to and by a racially marked, gendered body that include other characteristics located in a particular space and time. Invoking a semiotic analysis, Mignolo states:
“… rather than assuming that thinking comes before being, one assumes instead that it is a racially marked body in a geo-historical marked space that feels the urge to get the call to speak, to articulate, in whatever semiotic system, the urge that makes of living organisms human beings.” (pp. 160).
To speak (know, act) from this geopolitical position requires that we commit “epistemic disobediance” (Mignolo, 2009), that we interrogate the “naturalness” and “superiority” of a western, objective, and individualistic approach to knowing and being in the world and its claim to possessing an “advanced” and “civilized” people and society. It requires that we begin to listen to and learn from and with the silenced voices and ways of knowing of the colonized. An important qualification is that simply being socially and politically located within a geopolitical location of the South (as opposed to the North), does not guarantee an epistemic location of the South (Grosfoguel 2011). And concomitantly, there is no guarantee that the epistemes from the South will always de facto be superior to those from the North. The point is that they must be available and open to scrutiny before any evaluation can be rendered. Indeed the colonizing project of the Western powers was successful for so many years not only because of its brute force against the people but additionally because of the epistemic genocide resulting from five centuries of brutality wrought by the systematic waging of a war against indigenous knowledge, leading to what McLaren and Jaramillo (2006) call “the politics of erasure.” Yet, while the epistemologies of indigenous groups may not to this day be fully recovered, part of today’s epistemological subalterity requires among critical educators the recognition and re-membering of a history of oppression that has resulted in new forms of knowing and seeing, an episteme of resistance resulting from the need for survival, amidst poverty, hunger, alienation, war, anger, pain, and humiliation—what could be called “decolonial pedagogy”.
The linear progression of political economies from feudal to pre-capitalism to capitalism by which different nations (and their racialized people) have been compared and found trailing behind the “first world” has been shown to be an inadequate if not misleading understanding of historical ‘progress’. Theories of decoloniality suggest that the division of labor and power exercised by el poder colonial resulted in greater opportunities for industrialization and manufacturing to develop earlier in the west. This shift in understanding is helpful in challenging the deficit perspective with which people of color are often viewed.
Decoloniality critiques reductionistic versions of “mechanical Marxism” (i.e., those utilizing a simplistic base and superstructure model), arguing instead for a “heteroarchical” depiction of an entangled matrix of power and in this way addressing the arguments over culture versus materiality and agency versus structure (Walsh, 2002). From a decolonial perspective, we must work simultaneously toward the elimination not only of capitalism but rather of the entire power matrix which has been intimately entangled with social relations of production for centuries up to the present.
We agree that the various social positionings that guarantee power and privilege have an overlapping genesis that can be traced historically. Racism, for example, is both structured by and structures the means of production – both with respect to who labors and how the conditions for laboring are set up, and the extent and type of exploitation experienced. A decolonial perspective suggests, for instance, that the owning of the means of production by predominantly European males allowed for the structuring of the market to be hyper exploitative of women of color. This situation persists to this day. When we introduce the topic of finance capitalism to our classes and stress the importance of class struggle in our work with teachers, students often prefer to use the term “classism” or “socioeconomic status” as if these terms were equivalent to racism and sexism and heterosexism, for instance. They see no reason to prioritize class in what they refer to as their “intersectionality” grid. We have found a quotation by Joel Kovel that helps students understand why class is a very special category. We reproduce this quotation in full:
This discussion may help clarify a vexing issue on the left as to the priority of different categories of what might be called ‘dominative splitting’— chiefly, those of gender, class, race, ethnic and national exclusion, and, with the ecological crisis, species. Here we must ask, priority in relation to what? If we intend prior in time, then gender holds the laurel—and, considering how history always adds to the past rather than replacing it, would appear as at least a trace in all further dominations. If we intend prior in existential significance, then that would apply to whichever of the categories was put forward by immediate historical forces as these are lived by masses of people: thus to a Jew living in Germany in the 1930s, anti-Semitism would have been searingly prior, just as anti-Arab racism would be to a Palestinian living under Israeli domination today, or a ruthless, aggravated sexism would be to women living in, say, Afghanistan. As to which is politically prior, in the sense of being that which whose transformation is practically more urgent, that depends upon the preceding, but also upon the deployment of all the forces active in a concrete situation….If, however, we ask the question of efficacy, that is, which split sets the others into motion, then priority would have to be given to class, for the plain reason that class relations entail the state as an instrument of enforcement and control, and it is the state that shapes and organizes the splits that appear in human ecosystems. Thus class is both logically and historically distinct from other forms of exclusion (hence we should not talk of ‘classism’ to go along with ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’, and ‘species-ism’). This is, first of all, because class is an essentially man-made category, without root in even a mystified biology. We cannot imagine a human world without gender-distinction—although we can imagine a world without domination by gender. But a world without class is eminently imaginable—indeed, such was the human world for the great majority of our species’ time on earth, during all of which considerable fuss was made over gender. Historically, the difference arises because ‘class’ signifies one side of a larger figure that includes a state apparatus whose conquests and regulations create races and shape gender relations. Thus there will be no true resolution of racism so long as class society stands, inasmuch as a racially oppressed society implies the activities of a class-defending state. Nor can gender inequality be enacted away so long as class society, with its state, demands the super-exploitation of woman’s labour. Class society continually generates gender, racial, ethnic oppressions and the like, which take on a life of their own, as well as profoundly affecting the concrete relations of class itself. It follows that class politics must be fought out in terms of all the active forms of social splitting. It is the management of these divisions that keeps state society functional. Thus though each person in a class society is reduced from what s/he can become, the varied reductions can be combined into the great stratified regimes of history—this one becoming a fierce warrior, that one a routine-loving clerk, another a submissive seamstress, and so on, until we reach today’s personifications of capital and captains of industry. Yet no matter how functional a class society, the profundity of its ecological violence ensures a basic antagonism which drives history onward. History is the history of class society—because no matter how modified, so powerful a schism is bound to work itself through to the surface, provoke resistance (‘class struggle’), and lead to the succession of powers. (2002, pp. 123-124)
An understanding of hegemony as an ideological means of control is particularly useful here to help us make our argument. Hegemony, developed by Gramsci, develops through the use of coercion and consent as a means to guarantee the docility and acceptance of the masses for unequal material and social conditions that serve the interests of those in power. Systems and specific institutions are created that engage in forceful control of the people while others are concerned with guaranteeing the people’s consent to such coercion through ideological socialization. Thus, we have operating simultaneously structures that control what people do in the world (agency) and what people think about what they do in the world (subjectivities). While concerning himself with the exercise of hegemony, Gramsci was clear that agency and ideology were always developed within a broader structure of material relations of domination. He was clear that the processes of educating the public to the ideologies that would guarantee their consent to the unequal division of labor was also a form of domination, conceived as both a function of and in support of capital (Fischman & McLaren, 2005).
A primary focus on the cultural terrain of subjectivity and agency results in political quiescence engendered through the belief that human beings are lexically destined to create distinctions that separate us from and are used to dominate the Other. This is a turn from an economic determinism to a cultural determinism, both of which leave little opportunity to engage in real change. A focus on this ideological grounding through the exercise of consent as opposed to understanding the exercise of consent as grounded in broader struggles of domination determined by class struggle serves to conceal the labor/capital dialectic that severely restricts their economic, social, and educational opportunities. Absent the understanding of how transnational capitalism structures the lives of people of color and women at a global scale, attempts to change systems are often left to a facile form of identity politics and change is left up to ameliorating conditions within the current structure, without recognizing that as long as capitalism exists, there will always be the need for an exploited labor force.
Pedagogy of Possibility
A Decolonial Marxism requires that we consider success from the geopolitical location of the oppressed. Rarely do those of us in the USA look at the so-called “third world” as a site from which we have much to learn about the struggle for liberation. The most enduring of these struggles, the Cuban Revolution, is still in the making. It has been described as representing a “quantum leap in the development of socialism” (Yates, 2013). Despite being a small island and disabling US sanctions that limit the available of many goods and services, Cuba has one of the most egalitarian income and wealth distributions and has developed a world-class health care system with high life-expectancy and low infant mortality, an excellent education system free for all including free higher education and nearly universal literacy. Although the economy is centralized, with strict control over international trade and other national industries, increasingly agricultural production is being run by worker cooperatives and most of the food consumed is grown directly in Cuba, with urban farming being one of its most important developments. Cuba’s military supports revolutions across the world and medical personnel are often deployed to support the health care needs of impoverished nations across the globe.
Certainly, the Cuban Revolution is not a fait accompli as it continues to face problems that need to be addressed, including racism, a strong patriarchal system, and human rights violations, where some freedoms are constrained. Those who point fingers toward the lack of freedoms in Cuba are likely to do so because they are blinded to our own lack of freedoms in the US, having internalized the ideological framing of the “land of the free” where freedom really means a free market that allows the White corporate wealthy to exercise ideological and military coercion, through support of government, toward their own ends. Communism, according to Marx, was not the utopian end game but a moment in the process toward a society of freely associated producers.
The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela led by Hugo Chávez and now succeeded by Nicolas Maduro is another case in point. Described by Chávez as “socialism for the 21st century,” the Bolivarian Revolution has been underway for only a decade and yet it has already made important headway in securing better living conditions for the poor in Venezuela. Chávez nationalized important sectors of the economy including education, democratized government, and came out strongly against USA imperialism in América Latina. Through a collaboration with Cuba, Venezuela has been able to secure free health care for its citizens and a work study program that is training their peasants and workers to become doctors and nurses. Larrambule (2013) provides a striking anecdotal example of these efforts while showing the self-interested nature of some of the critiques raised against Chávez:
Literally millions have been lifted out of poverty and given new opportunities to improve their lives. Examples from daily life abound. I remember speaking to an upper class anti-Chavista once who was complaining about how, since Chávez came to power, it had become difficult to find maids. Many of the poor women she used to hire, she explained, had enrolled in a free education program provided by the government, one of the highly successful ‘missions.’ (para. 1)
An interesting feature of Venezuela’s 21st century revolution is that it does not follow in the steps of past approaches, including those of socially democratic parties that suggested voting in people who would seek more socially just policies and ameliorate some of the negative conditions brought on by capitalism or Leninist approaches that sought to develop a counter system of power parallel to capitalism in order to overthrow it first and later develop more socialist policies. In either case, the result was a centralized control of government that excluded the people’s participation in their own democratizing process, at least at the outset. The Bolivarian Revolution, however, seems to do both, lead from the top and engage the people in community-based approaches. As Larrambule (2013) explains,
Communities and workers have been organizing from below; and technocrats and bureaucrats have been passing laws from above. Each fights and cooperates with the other in an uneasy alliance. (Socialism in the 21st century, para. 3)
While this may sound like the status quo, according to Larrambule the relations between workers and these technocrats are “sharper” as workers are not merely demanding better conditions but rather equal pay, collective participation, and minimizing the division of labor. Here, new ways of structuring society are in the making, including communal councils, communal cities, and the Bolivarian University. The plan laid out by Chávez for 2013-2019 included a focus on environmental protection, economic development through the extraction of oil reserves in the country through new technologies with low environmental impact. Another aspect of the plan is the deepening of the people’s participation through building more and larger popularly-based organizations.
Each of the two cases, the Cuban Revolution and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution are works in progress. Both face important challenges. Both, however, point us toward a pedagogy of possibility, a pedagogy in which dreaming of new ways of structuring society is not an allusive dream but one built on collective approaches, creative thinking and problem solving – a dream that has roots in both our concrete history and today’s reality and that is imminently possible.
Fischman & McLaren (2005) discuss the role of the committed intellectual as being of critical importance to the resistance of oppressed peoples. Like Gramsci’s organic intellectual, the committed intellectual springs from the popular majorities but with the theoretical understandings to make sense of their position in the world and act to confront it. The point of departure from Gramsci lies in the notion of commitment, where commitment suggests a continuing and evolving reflexivity that encourages self-critique and accepts fear and mistakes as part of a life-long process. In Fischman and McLaren’s words (2005):
The committed intellectual is sometimes critically self conscious and actively engaged but at other times is confused or even unaware of his or her limitations or capacities to be an active proponent of social change. (pp. 11)
This critical awareness is not necessarily the starting point but rather the outcome of engagement in a struggle guided by a fundamental commitment to the oppressed, where such an ethics of commitment, guided by ontological clarity, takes precedence over having the correct epistemological approach.
We can prepare our students to be committed intellectuals by providing spaces within which to they can locate and dialogue through their diverse epistemes about the global economic, political, and social realities, including racism, patriarchy, and all other oppressions. An important aspect of such preparation is the opportunity to collectively work toward change, even at micro levels such that the cracks within the structure of the system can be revealed and they can be convinced of the hope and sense of possibility that will supports courage and action toward a new sociality.
While the historical impossibility (at least at the present moment) of transforming capitalist social life into a socialist alternative is perhaps critical pedagogy’s most difficult but most poetic truth, critical educators nonetheless insist on making history rather than deferring to it. The cairn of critical pedagogy exceeds any of the many stones that have been heaped upon it, although clearly that rock contributed by Paulo Freire has been the most sturdy up to the present. Yet critical pedagogy needs to navigate carefully, steering itself between the Scylla of an ultra-leftism and the Charybdis of an incremental liberal reformism to develop among its practitioners the devotion to act towards the humanistic freedom that is the condition for truth, love, wonder and creation. While such an agency cannot be motivated by the arrogance of self-righteousness and certainty that leads to rabble-rousing demagoguery, at the same time it cannot be powered by some John-a-dreams deodorized by the aerosol musings of the postmodern left that pins all revolutionary hope upon some deconstructed absence. Capitalists are not the defenseless puppets of the dramatic imagination—some Voldemort that hovers over the process of globalization, conjured by the Faustian hubris of greedy bankers. The capitalists give flesh to a social relation that will remain even after the capitalists themselves have been vanquished. In fighting the capitalists our aim is to pitch far and wide the message that it is capitalism as a social relation of exploitation that must be jettisoned, not the capitalists. We do not possess any special histrionic gift, analogic power or meditative nostalgia for former revolutionary upheavals; we are not some new species of Platonic ribaldry, some new heel-clicking warrior-kings or queens exhorting “we happy few,” “we band of brothers and sisters” to go “once more unto the breach” with an attitude of impeachable correctness. We are not fighting at Agincourt or Harfleur but in the classrooms, the seminar rooms, the libraries, the community centers and at the school board administrative offices and in university seminar rooms and on program committees. We are groupuscules, not armies, but we refuse to self-define ourselves as fringe. After all, we have been shaped as much by our material histories as we have by ideas and we are part of a consensus congealing around us today that another world is possible. Our struggle has no strategic exactitude but takes advantage of spaces that open up for resistance. We exult when the Zapatistas cry “Que se vayan todos” when they are referring to bankers and politicians. We support working people’s opposition to alienated labor, widening class inequality and war through acts of solidarity with rank-and-file workers, Blacks, Latino/as, indigenous peoples, women, Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender people, and youth. We are, after all, critical educators.
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