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Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire

reviewed by William Ayers - December 12, 2006

coverTitle: Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire
Author(s): Peter McLaren
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742541932 , Pages: 368, Year: 2005
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Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being ( I Think)

By now Peter McLaren must be taken as more than a mere run-of-the-academy professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s at the very least a phenomenon—a phenomenon whose meaning is wildly contested from every side. To some, he’s a singular intellectual, a quasi-heroic figure standing up for a radical vision of critical pedagogy against the forces of reaction (as well as the fakers on the Left), while to others he’s an over-wrought blow-hard spouting slogans without much substance. To the Mexican educators who created La Fundación Peter McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica he’s something of a divine inspiration, while to the right-wing UCLA alumni who organized a campaign to drive him from the campus he’s more than a communist threat—he’s Satan himself, and they are determined to eliminate his devilish presence and the sulfur that surrounds him. He’s the philosopher prince of a political movement to some—the McLarenites?—and to others, the CEO of “Peter McLaren, Inc.,” protecting his patents through a steady stream of books that seem to appear from the sky, as regular as rain. Even his book jacket photo polarizes: is that the Dark Prince leering mischievously into the camera, Andy Warhol on drugs, or a dashing rebel smiling beneficently as he prepares to smash the state? It depends, I suppose, on your angle of regard.

I’ve known Peter casually for years, and have always thought of him as working for the good of all—socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and all the rest. I remember his early book, Life in Schools, as a wonderfully engaging work connecting the everyday experiences of students and teachers with larger political and social contexts. But I began to consider the McLaren phenomenon only recently, when I was invited by the Centro Internacional Miranda, a Marxist-oriented think-tank in Venezuela, to give a series of talks in October 2006 on critical pedagogy for the 21st Century, where one of my stops was the Universidad Bolivariano de Venezuela (UBV) where I was to deliver a named lecture. To my surprise, my talk was the Peter McLaren Lecture. With my curiosity piqued, I picked up one of his 2005 books, Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire, for the airplane ride home. It was quite a ride.

Peter McLaren is surely one of the good guys—he despises the Bush regime, for example, asserts his anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiments repeatedly in his writings, and envisions a future society built on the principle of justice and the practice of human development. He’s right, of course, that capitalism is a vicious and destructive world system, and that a major obstacle to fundamental change is a wide-spread belief in the “inevitability of capital.” He counters that fatalism with a hopeful slogan borrowed from the activist World Social Forum: “Another World Is Possible.” Slogans are, of course, an anemic alternative to concrete analysis and action—more on this later—but the sentiment is certainly a right one. I still think McLaren is on the right side of both history and humanity.

But we owe it to ourselves—no less than to McLaren—to judge his work by the standards he himself sets and the aims he establishes. Even hedged, McLaren sets lofty and ambitious goals: “Given the urgent times we live in,” he writes, “we need to ratchet up the struggle ahead” (p. 10). This is the “singular challenge” of his book, he claims—to intensify and focus—and here are the questions he will take up:

How can we liberate the use value of human beings from their subordination to exchange value? How can we convert what is least functional about ourselves as far as the abstract utilitarian logic of capitalist society is concerned—our self-realizing, sensuous, species-being—into our major instrument of self-definition? How can we make what we represent to capital—replaceable commodities—subordinate to who we have also become as critical social agents of history? How can we make critical self-reflexivity a demarcating principle of who we are and critical global citizenship the substance of what we want to become? How can we make the cultivation of a politics of hope and possibility a radical end in itself? How can we de-commodify our subjectivities? How can we materialize our self-activity as a revolutionary force and struggle for the self-determination of free and equal citizens in a just system of appropriation and distribution of social wealth? How can we make and remake our own nature within historically specific conventions of capitalist society such that we can make this self-activity a revolutionary force to dismantle capitalism itself and create the conditions for the development of our full human potential? How can we confront our “producers” (i.e., social relations of production, the corporate media, cultural formations and institutional structures) as an independent power? Capitalists and Conquerors has been written both to provide at least partial answers to these questions and to formulate new ones. (p. 10)

And that’s not all:

Capitalists and Conquerors is one particular foray into the politics of critical pedagogy…I have tried to make a case for including Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism—in critical educational studies...(p.11)

OK, McLaren announces his intention to “ratchet up the struggle ahead,”—I’m all for that—“provide at least partial answers” to a daunting list of questions, and add “Marxist analysis—namely historical materialism” to the politics of critical pedagogy. Onward! Let’s do it!

But that’s pretty much as far as it goes, opening shot and endpoint rolled into one. The rhetoric is intermittently at a fever pitch or impenetrable, but the path to ratcheting things up turns out to be overgrown and still tangled; none of the questions raised is illuminated (I still want to know how to de-commodify my subjectivity, how to materialize my self-activity), and the rare attempts to actually undertake a Marxist analysis of U.S. or global society are disturbingly off.

This last failure seems particularly egregious, for McLaren announces from every angle that he is a revolutionary Marxist, and that he has, or that he will, or that we must develop a Marxist analysis in order to move forward:

My concern over the last decade has been to introduce Marxist scholarship into the field of critical pedagogy, since it (sic) has been taken over by postmodernists who have been attempting to suture together in recent decades the ontological tear in the universe of ideas that was first created when history was split in two by the dialectical wave of Marx’s pen in the Communist Manifesto and the subsequent development of the communist movement in the mid-1800s…(p. 35)

My work in critical pedagogy… constitutes in one sense the performative register for class struggle.  While it sets as its goal the decolonization of subjectivity, it also targets the material basis of capitalist social relations…(p. 57)

I’m persuaded that his intention is to persistently push a humanistic Marxism and the need for class analysis into the conversation, and I think that that could be a most welcome and beneficial thing. For all I know he’s made the effort elsewhere—I don’t claim familiarity with the entire oeuvre—and in any case, the task is daunting. I wouldn’t fault him for falling short, but here there is simply no development of strategies toward a socialist alternative to capitalism, and there’s no deeper contribution to understanding globalization; for example, a racialized “war on terror,” the rise of fundamentalism, and other conditions that cry out for serious study and analysis. Exhortation is not argument, performance is not enlightenment, and hectoring is a far cry from a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. If proclamation itself is action—Peter’s self-definition as a Marxist with every breath, his assertion that changes in the relations of production are central to a humane future, and the naming of socialism as a long-term goal—and if urging others to pledge their allegiance to the cause is all there is to organizing and mobilizing, well, this book does the job. But for political analysis and political theory—or for serious consideration of the demands of political work on the ground—the book falls short and the shortfall is fatal. There quite simply is no there there.

One of the few attempts in this book to contribute to a concrete analysis gets it terribly wrong:

In stating this we need to include an important caveat that differentiates revolutionary critical pedagogy from those who invoke the well-worn race/class/gender triplet which can sound, to the uninitiated, both radical and vaguely Marxian. It is not. Race, class, and gender, while they invariably intersect and interact, are not co-primary. This “triplet” approximates what the “philosophers might call a category mistake.” On the surface the triplet may be convincing—some people are oppressed because of their race, some as a result of their gender, others because of their class—but this “is grossly misleading” for it is not that “some individuals manifest certain characteristics known as ‘class’ which then results in their oppression; on the contrary, to be a member of a social class just is to be oppressed” and in this regard class is “a wholly social category”… Furthermore, even though “class” is usually invoked as part of the aforementioned and much vaunted triptych, it is usually gutted of its practical, social dimension or treated solely as a cultural phenomenon—as just another form of “difference.” In these instances, class is transformed from an economic and indeed, social category to an exclusively cultural or discursive one or one in which class merely signifies a “subject position.” (p. 100)

This is simply a knotty rehash of the discredited line of the old U.S. Communist Party—“Black and White Unite and Fight”—after it had abandoned revolution: class is all that counts, and everything else is just a distraction. Again, there’s nothing easy about contributing to a further understanding of the peculiar intersection of race and class, of hierarchies of color mapped onto relations to production—particularly the murderous role of white supremacy in blocking unity and revolutionary change—but there is an important and relevant conversation underway from W.E.B. DuBois to James and Grace Lee Boggs, from Audre Lorde to Robin D.G. Kelley, Angela Davis, and bell hooks that could be acknowledged and engaged. Race and gender, gender and class, class and race—a lot has been done and there’s a lot left to do, but smart white male lefties like Peter naming and then dismissing the “triplet” seems more than a little glib. It seems to point toward a limiting white blind-spot and a severely pinched vision of social justice.

In an aside, McLaren manages to both accept and deflect two weaknesses often associated with his work: “While some criticism is substantive—including a welcomed critique of the enciphered language of some academics and a challenge to radical educators to come up with concrete possibilities—much of it is small-minded and petty…” (p. 30). Note the “some academics”—Not me! Not me!—and the active “enciphering” to boot. There is, in fact, a self-conscious performativeness on almost every page:

Through policies of increasing its military-industrial-financial interest, it continues to purse its quivering bourgeois lips, bare its imperialist fangs, and suck the lifeblood from the open veins of South America and other regions of the globe. (p. 23)

Watered by the tears of the poor and cultivated by working-class labor, the dreams that sprout from the unmolested soil of capital are those engineered by the ruling class. (p. 20)

One thing seems certain: this is not language that invites dialogue. It lacks nuance, complexity, and what Toni Morrison calls the propulsive “midwifery properties” of language. It descends instead into the “looted language” of “the bottomed-out mind,” which Morrison nails as the “proud but calcified language of the academy.” It’s all a bit reminiscent of a piece of satire circulated years ago aimed at the pretentious writings of critical educationists—the satire provides a connect-the-dots formula for sounding like (insert your favorite theorist here) by simply combining three words in sequence: Column A plus Column B  plus Column C. Column A is a long list of favored qualifiers (critically, ethically, culturally, politically, historically and so on); Column B includes transformative, emancipatory, informed, grounded, empowering and more; Column C is the subject (discourse, pedagogy, language, ideology). Add A and B and C randomly and you’ll get the idea: critically grounded theory; culturally emancipatory pedagogy. It works!  But as others have noted, if this is liberatory education, why, after reading this, do I not feel free?

Because Peter McLaren fails here to claim authority on the page based on argument or example (and note that authority on the page must be earned in the writing, while authoritarianism on the page is always simply asserted) there’s way too much “I maintain,” “I contend,” and “I agree with,” followed by extensive quotes from favorite authors. One could argue that McLaren is a “popularizer” except that this goes in the opposite direction: accessible writers like Gore Vidal or Arundati Roy are rendered more obscure.

There’s too much repetition ( “The construction of a new vision of human sociality has never been more urgent”…again and again; and “but a new vision of human sociality is precisely what is not on offer by progressive educators…” followed by “What is not on offer is an alternative social vision…” seventy pages later); too much self referencing ("The recent advance of contemporary Marxist educational scholarship… critical theory…and a re-materialized critical pedagogy…"—each citing mostly himself); and metaphors that cry out to be blocked (“Skimming the surface of critical pedagogy like a hovercraft navigating a swamp”—Wait! That’s our pool you’re calling a swamp!). There’s no utterance here that requires a response—all we hear is the Thud! Thud! Thud! of domineering language.

The Schoolboys of Barbiana, a classic text from decades ago that is being re-released now along with a contemporary essay by Marvin Hoffman, was initially a writing project organized by an Italian priest who practiced an authentic critical pedagogy without the vaunted title. In the book, a group of poor youth provides a devastating critique of capitalist schooling in the form of letters to the teachers who’d failed them and pushed them out of school. One boy said: “Have something important to say, something useful…Know for whom you are writing…Eliminate every useless word.” Content; audience; style: that’s excellent advice for anyone aspiring to contribute in a genuine way to the struggle for a decent future for all.

And on to the “concrete possibilities” critical educators might offer:

Enter critical pedagogy.

Critical pedagogy is secured by the most fecund of revolutionary talismans: critique… Critical revolutionary pedagogy begins with the following questions: Do we know whose hands ground the capitalist lenses through which we comprehend the world and do we know from whence (sic) came the bloodstains on the lens grinder’s workbench? Whether we know the answers to such questions, they must be followed by a further question: How and why is this so? If we know the answers, what are they? If we don’t know, why is this so? If there are better questions to be asked, what are they? (p. 9)

Capitalist schools, authoritarian schools of every stripe, are, it’s true, in the business of obedience and conformity. They sort and judge, create hierarchies of winners and losers, train people for predetermined slots in a competitive society. They are not the least bit interested in human development, self-actualization, or self-realization, and they rely on that disturbing but common half-language of labels—behavior disordered, attention deficit disorder, learning disabled, problems with impulse control—to justify the cruelest treatment of the rebels and the delinquents, and ultimately of all the students. Capitalist schooling submerges human development in its single-minded drive for profit, while in democratic schools the ultimate aim of production is not the production of things but the production of free human beings associated in terms of equality, folks capable of changing their lives as well as changing the world. A contradiction at the heart of teaching here and now is that while the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power—every human being is of infinite and incalculable value—the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social life and develops a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy nourishes and challenges free people to act freely in a free society—in history—to right wrongs, repair damage, correct errors, and oppose all unnecessary suffering, and therefore fails as an adjunct to capitalism, just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice—ultimately the schools or the system must die.

Classrooms and schools for democracy and freedom recognize each student as an entire universe, each capable of becoming an author, artist, and activist in his or her own life—teachers in these classrooms assume that every student is an unruly spark of meaning-making energy on a voyage of discovery and surprise. And the best teachers are themselves unruly sparks, also on a voyage, also awakening to the new and moving and in solidarity with, not in service to their students.

The most important lesson I learned in the earliest days of my teaching came from the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in the early 1960s. These schools were premised on the idea that while the black people of Mississippi had been denied many things—decent facilities, forward-looking curriculum, fully trained teachers—the fundamental injury was the denial of the right to think for themselves about the circumstances of their lives, how they got to where they were, and how things might be changed. The curriculum for these schools was a curriculum of questions, of inquiry and dialogue, a curriculum of posing problems: why are we, students and teachers, in the Freedom Movement? What do we want to change? This is an example of critical pedagogy at its best. It invites people to engage, to participate, to transform their lives, and to change their world.

At its core, an education for freedom demands something altogether different, something upending and revolutionary from students: repudiate your subordinate place in the pecking order, it urges; remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance; refuse to be an acolyte to power or to anyone. You must change. All of this, then, demands a radical rethinking of the relationship of teacher and student, students and learning, school and society, education and justice.

Just as every practice embodies a theory, every lofty pronouncement or controlling principle must be able to be brought to life on the ground, but there’s no evidence of it at all in Capitalists and Conquerors. Theory is not grounded; the ground is not theorized.

An additional note: the failure to do the work—theoretical or practical—leads to a deeper pessimism embedded in a proclaimed optimism. There’s a long whine echoing throughout, and to claim, as Peter does, that his work is "silenced" in the U.S. stretches credulity:

These days it is far from fashionable to be a radical educator…To identify your politics as Marxist…is to invite derision and ridicule from many quarters, including many on the Left. It is to open one’s work to all species of dyspeptic criticism, from crude hectoring to sophisticated Philippics.  Charges range from being a naïve leftist to being stuck in a time warp, to being hooked on an antediluvian patriarch, to giving in to cheap sentimentality or romantic utopianism. Marxists are accused with (sic) assuming an untenable political position that enables them to wear the mantle of the revolutionary without having to get their hands dirty in the day-to-day struggles of rank-and-file teachers who occupy the front lines in the schools of our major urban centers… Critics often make assumptions that you are guilty of being terminally removed from the lives of teachers and students until proven otherwise...(p.30)

What else can I say?

I met Peter and one of his talented students and current co-authors, one of the “traveling critics,” on my most recent trip to Venezuela. We spent some time together, and he’s not the stereotype that either his friends or his enemies make him out to be; he’s a regular person, of course, after a couple of minutes. When I raised some of my criticisms of Capitalists and Conquerors, he directed me to a wide range of other writings, articles, polemics, and books. While I still think Peter McLaren wants to fight for the future of humanity, and I want him to keep at it, nothing in what I read persuaded me that Capitalists and Conquerors is any more than I’ve said here.

I return to Life in Schools, a participatory and communal exercise in critical pedagogy in which he listened attentively, inquired actively, engaged an audience in big ideas grounded in the mud and muck of the world as he’d found it. I wish he'd take a deep cleansing breath now, clear his head of all that clutter, consider an audience and a community to engage that’s both larger and more eager to participate than he’d ever imagined. Now, get in dialogue with that community, start to think and write more clearly and with much more urgency. You know: from the people, to the people.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 12, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12888, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:37:51 PM

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About the Author
  • William Ayers
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    WILLIAM AYERS is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, and author of To Teach; Teaching Toward Freedom. His upcoming book, published by Beacon Press, is called Teaching The Taboo: Politics and Pedagogy in an Unjust World.
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