Professing Education
June,2003.Vol 2.No.1 P.2-P.9

Traveling the Path of Most Resistance: Peter McLaren's Pedagogy of Dissent

Interview with Peter McLaren

University of California, Los Angeles

Kenneth McClelland: Hi Peter! We are happy that you have been able to take some time to
talk with us here at Professing Education and address some of the problems surrounding the miseducation of the democratic public.

Peter McLaren: Thanks, Ken, for offering me an opportunity to put a few of my ideas on the table
for your readers to consider.

K. M.: In the wake of the kind of confusion and horror generated by the recent attacks on the
United States, its leaders have responded with confidence- their answer, among other things, involving the forceful display of 'democracy' abroad in what we might assume will be an expanding web. It seems to me that this brash confidence belies the real confusion that can be the only result of such terror tactics. To your thinking, do confident answers in this case represent the easy way?

P. M.: Well, long before the Bush gang took power (illegally, in my view) in January 2001, the
present architects of U.S. foreign policy at the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), recognized the need to maintain the dominant position of U.S. capitalism by advancing such American values through a policy of `peace through strength.' It has turned out to be more like peace through war. Permanent war.

Americans like to plump for the Bush gang's tough stance against terrorism while forgetting that transnationals who are flooding the market with cheap and subsidized food are forcing millions of farmers into bankruptcy, including thousands per week in the U.S. Forgotten are the millions of urban homeless and unemployed and those who cannot afford medical insurance. Forgotten is the environmental degradation in the Homeland, and the toxic waste we are dumping not just on Native American lands but also exporting to developing countries as the solution. Forgotten is California's energy crisis that was stage-managed by Kenny Boy Lay, the darling of Bush W., who still runs free even after the collapse of his company, Enron. Well, the corporate media helps us forget. And FOX-News virtually commands us to forget. As I have tried to document with Valerie Scatamburlo-D'Annibale, Ramin Farahmandpur, Greg Martin, Noah DeLissovoy, and Nathalia Jaramillo in a torrent of articles over the past year, ultra-right wing mouthpieces have been busily trying to craft George W. Bush as a fraternity brother version of Ronald Reagan, while labeling critics as un-American and unpatriotic. Recently, pro-war columnists and radio and television gasbags have begun a testosterone-driven campaign to have anti-war dissidents arrested by invoking the Sedition Act of 1918. It has become dangerous to think, to ask too many questions, or to look beyond the surface of whatever commentary is served up to us by politicians, the military, and the infantilizing screeds of talk-radio pundits.

As far as linking Bush military strategy to neo-liberal economics, my focus, Ken, has been on monopoly capital theory which traces the developments in finance capital, the concentration and centralization of capital as part of a new phase of neo-liberal globalization, stagnation tendencies in the capitalist center, and imperialist exploitation in the countries located on the periphery (developing capitalist economies).

Well, we know that all the talk by the U.S. ruling elite about exporting democracy really boils down to exporting neo-liberal free market ideology, policy, and practice. In my view, neo-liberal economics is incompatible with democracy, and later on I'll try to give you a rather technical answer directly from Marx - Capital, Volume 1 to be precise - that speaks to why I feel this to be the case. Occupied by the military forces of the U.S. and British coalition, Iraq is slowly being turned into a vassal state - a protectorate, if you will - of its conquering imperialist powers. The Security Council of the UN granted these occupying forces full powers to control the economy and the future politics of Iraq, which it is doing by virtue of a campaign designed to terrorize the population into submission. We've already read about the thousands of civilians who have been - and continue to be - killed. We have seen what happened to Iraq's cultural heritage in the mass lootings, and now its national wealth - i.e., oil - will be sold in order to pay US corporations, who, without bidding, have been granted huge reconstruction contracts. If, in Iraq, citizens decided by free election to keep their oil socialized, then the US would never permit that election to stand. The US occupying powers are saying that the Iraqis must take `baby steps' toward democracy before they will be permitted to govern themselves in full (the US has such a colonial view of the Iraqis it is sickening, and it reminds me of the patronizingly pathetic way the Anglo-Europeans viewed the Indians or African slaves: as underdeveloped children). The US is prohibiting elections until the conditions are ripe for a government to be elected that will favor the institution of free-market capitalism. They need to propagandize first, and get their ideological machinery institutionally in place. And they need to build a loyal capitalist class, with the help of their imported Iraqi exiles (Iraqi workers are already complaining that their wages were higher when Saddam's state tightly controlled the economy). And, of course, they need to purge the socialists and communists. Then, when the occupying powers are assured that the government will remove any impediments to letting the US and other developed democracies exploit their cheap labor and natural resources, then - and only then - will they be given a green light to hold elections. And God forbid if the Iraqis wish to elect an Islamic fundamentalist government. (Of course, the US helped to cultivate the most reactionary Islamic fundamentalists possible when it worked with bin Laden and Pakistan's secret service to help expel the Soviets from Afghanistan.) And what will happen when Iraqi citizens start to press for the right to organize independent unions and to collective negotiation? History has shown that the US will militarily pummel or covertly destabilize any country that refuses the great dream of free-market capitalism, because, frankly, the US needs the markets (it is trying its best to topple Venezuela and it has failed for decades to finish off Cuba). Anything considered remotely socialist is linked to the evil of the gulag. The key point here is that whether they opposed the war or not, all countries that are at the mercy of the international institutions that are devoted to neo-liberal capitalist globalization (G-8, World Bank, IMF, European Union, or "free-trade" agreements like the FTAA on the American continent) are forced to implement policies of "structural adjustment" and counter-reforms that are totally directed against rights that have been gained through courageous and relentless struggle by workers over decades.

Even the United Nations (although it had a minor revolt by the Security Council over the war in Iraq) is perceived by many in the US as a feral socialist body that attempts to impede the will of the United States, even though historically it has genuflected to the interests of U.S. imperial policy-making on nearly every occasion.

One thing to keep in mind is that the US has always acted militarily to pursue its imperial interests and maintain its economic hegemony. As the philosopher Hobsbawm (2003) has pointed out, the imperial reach of the U.S. differs from that of Britain a century ago in that the U.S. does not practice colonialism but relies on dependent and satellite states, resorting to armed intervention when the natives get restless and start refusing to buckle down. Whereas the British Empire was based on a singularly British purpose, the U.S. is based on a universalist conviction that the rest of the world should follow its example of free market capitalist democracy.

But the Bush Doctrine has relegated the notion of `just war' to the realm of absurdity. There is, as Ellen Meiksins Wood argues, no more real aim to war, since its results can never be achievable. The means _ attack by the most powerful military ever known _ are no longer proportionate to the ends_ eliminating evildoers. The economy, just like evildoers, is boundless. It's not just that the means are disproportionate to the ends _ attacking countries like Afghanistan whose GNP amounts to less than a B-52 bomber—but when you have an open-ended declaration of perpetual war, what achievable goals can you hope to postulate in order to justify it? And Meiksins-Wood argues how this notion of perpetual war, this war without end, answers the needs of this new imperialism, by the universality of capitalist imperatives. Anyway, suffice it to say that the Bush gang has emerged as an indispensable guarantor of `super-profits' for the drive to world economic domination. Think about this, Ken, in the context of education for a moment. We now have the concept of "life-long learning" that is designed to replace the principle of a basic public school education before entry into the workforce. This reduces workers to human resources designed to serve the new flexibility of the corporate sector and the internal needs of individual companies. In other words, the concept of life-long learning means that workers could be compelled to work at any job, at any age, and under any conditions that the employer sees fit. This is paving the way for NGOs to take over the business of education, as it has already done in places such as Haiti. Education must be de-linked from the IMF, the World Bank, and the international financial institutions since the multinationals see a potential market in education of US$2.2 trillion dollars a year. Given the crisis in world capitalism, corporations cannot afford to lose this potential market. Thus, one of the battles we are fighting is the privatization and dismantling of education in any form: private teaching; subcontracting or externalization of public school and university work to private companies, associations, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs); transnational "free-trade" agreements; decentralization and the fragmentation of public services; the establishment of voucher systems and the substitution of "competencies" for "qualifications." (These points were made at the recent International Conference Against War and in Defense of Public Education was held in Paris, on June 14-15, 2003. )

For a while it seemed that capitalist imperialism could do the work of what formerly was accomplished by military means by imperial states and colonial settlers. This is no longer the case. The new imperialism needs a doctrine of war, but the doctrine of the former `just war' is no longer sufficient. It needs a new doctrine of war _ a doctrine of endless war, of war without boundaries. It needs a new model of imperialism, so watch how the US rebuilds Iraq—with particular attention to how it restructures public services, education, labor codes, etc.

You are familiar, I am sure, with the frequently invoked quotation made famous by Prussian military officer, Karl Marie von Clauswitz (1780-1831): "war is the continuation of politics by other means" (cited in Meszaros, 1993, p. 18). However, Istvan Meszaros notes that this definition no longer is tenable in our time. This is because such a definition "assumed the rationality of the actions which connect the two domains of politics and war as the continuation of one another" (2003, p. 18). For this definition to hold, war had to be winnable—winnability in war was its absolute condition, for even a defeat in war would not destroy the very rationality of war between competing nation states. This absolute condition for Von Clausewitz's definition no longer exists, maintains Meszaros, if we consider that today, the objective of a winnable or feasible war is tied to the objective requirements of imperialism, which is "world domination by capital's most powerful state, in tune with its own political design of ruthless authoritarian "globalization" (dressed up as `free exchange' in a U.S. ruled global market)" (2003, p. 18). This situation is clearly unwinnable and could not be considered a rational objective by any stretch of the imagination. War as the mechanism of global government is untenable because the "weapons already available for waging the war or wars of the twenty first century are capable of exterminating not only the adversary but the whole of humanity, for the first time ever in history" (2003, p. 19). Meszaros warns that Bush's National Security Strategy "makes Hitler's irrationality look like the model of rationality" (2003, p. 19).

Once Iraq, for instance, is made sufficiently vulnerable to the rules of the imperial marketplace, the US no longer needs to rule by military occupation. But Iraq must always be threatened by military force if it no longer complies. The smashing of Iraq was also a lesson for other countries that defy free-market imperatives. The cruel irony here is that US military and economic imperialism is most certain to promote more terrorism than it is able to prevent. The US is after total war as a form of unilateral world domination. Now if we want to talk about the world system today, then I would follow again the arguments made by Enrique Dussel and argue that we can locate the dependency of less developed countries at the level of competition and the distribution of surplus value. Were it not for space limitations, I would focus here on Marx's notion of the fall of the rate of profit as a result of the growth of monopoly capitalism or as simultaneous with the growth of the mass of profit, which will take us into the whole arena of overcapacity or overproduction _ a situation that I hold in large measure responsible for driving the recent imperialist hegemony of the United States. That might be a good discussion for another interview.

K. M.: How might those who are attempting to profess education in the wake of such traumatic events start coming to terms with the questions not being asked then, and what might a few of those questions be?

P. M.: It is important for any educator to spend time with real people, in real life struggles, to understand how they engage with society from the bottom up. It is important to be part of struggles outside of the seminar room. My own activity as a revolutionary socialist is premised on the notion that democracy as a set of discourses or principles or political philosophy is simultaneously re-functioned at the level of everyday social relations as an instrument of exploitation. And where I have become the most outspoken is in my critique of liberal reformism. It seems obvious to me that most of the educational left speaks from a discourse of reformism. However, in my own work, I refrain from dogmatically posing an either-or option of reformism or revolution but rather take a both-and dialectical position. Dialectics is about mediation, not juxtaposition, most surely, and I approach the reform versus revolution question dialectically. Of course we have no choice but to act within capitalist social relations but my position is that while we are living and struggling within the belly of the beast we need to develop a vision of working towards a society outside of capitalism's value form of labor. I don't offer a blueprint, but a glimpse of some possibilities.

My work on developing a post-capitalist society is mostly in the subjective "what if" mode and not the imperative "it must look like this" mode. However, in my critique of capitalism I am less tentative. In fact, it has been described as downright ruthless. We need to be clear that we don't have on the agenda in the United States a revolutionary perspective, especially in education. We have militant movements in the US, true, but most of these operate within the larger optic of reformism. Approaching reformism from the perspective of the classical distinction posited between reformism and revolution by Luxemburg and Lenin (in the era of the Second and Third Internationals), Alex Callinicos has written some insightful commentaries on the dangers of reformism (reformism used here as the gradual improvement of capitalism rather than the revolutionary transformation of society) that I believe need to be rehearsed. Now I know I make a lot of people in the field of education nervous _ especially in a post-9/11 environment—when I talk about the revolutionary transformation of the state. I am not talking about armed revolution here but rather the ability of workers to take control of society through means other than its violent overthrow. I am reminded of the revolution that occurred in Paris in late February, 1848, triggering revolutionary activity throughout most of Europe. During this time Marx had returned to Paris from Brussels to help organize the communist movement and he was adamant in discouraging armed resistance as reckless adventurism. He urged winning a democratic, political revolution with a view towards pushing ahead to achieve socialism. When I talk about revolutionary transformation, I am talking about education, the development of revolutionary social consciousness as a direct challenge to reformist consciousness, a critique of political economy rather than tinkering with capitalist redistribution, resistance that at times would surely constitute civil disobedience and protracted class battles, but I am not talking about armed revolution, so let's be clear on that. And I have always taken a strong stand against terrorism, whether that is state terrorism or individual acts of terrorism.

Well, back to the concept of reformism. Even militant anti-capitalist movements can be reformist if they attempt to redress neo-liberalism by strengthening the state, but at the same time do little to challenge the basis of the inter-imperialist rivalry we are seeing throughout the globe (in contrast to the insights of Hardt and Negri, I might add, in their world bestseller, Empire). To defeat reformism, we need patience, obviously, and we need to move in a number of directions. As Callinicos notes, we need to create a united front, which means winning the working-class base of the electorate over to the struggle for a socialist alternative to capitalism. We need to build our struggle around demands and through organizational forms that can be shared by diverse political forces. This means increasing efforts at radicalizing the labor movement, which works overwhelmingly within a reformist logic. Struggles along this line have never been easy in the United States. Since the Battle of Seattle, there have, however, been promising signs. The anti-war movement, especially the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition, was able to bring together divergent groups that took a strong stand against the war, and against US imperialism, although it did take a lot of media hits for its association with the Workers World Party. Strategically, it makes little sense to work toward the construction of a mass revolutionary party here—the objective conditions just don't exist. I favor the notion put forward by Callinicos, which is that of regroupment, which means revolutionary Marxists working on a non-sectarian basis in which there exist multiple interpretations on what revolutionary socialism might mean but which takes seriously the concept of building an anti-capitalist movement within the context of the notion of a permanent revolution. In other words, any effective anti-capitalist struggle needs to be international in scope. Now, within education, my role is singularly more modest. My goal is simply to educate teachers and teacher educators about Marx's ideas and the Marxist tradition, and dispel the lies and distortions that have crusted over Marx's legacy since the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War. This was never an easy task, and has become more difficult now in the United States since 9/11. I am also committed to the notion that teachers need to become part of the united front in their personal lives. When you see the country—and nearly all countries of the world, in fact—ruled by a small cadre of the capitalist class, serving the neo-liberal agenda which has lead to the virtual impoverishment of working-people and the destruction of the planet's ecosystems, and the superexploitation of women throughout the globe, how is it possible to remain, as an educator, detached from larger social movements struggling against this?

K. M.: It is assumed that certain pre-conditions are necessary for intelligent criticism of existing social conditions. Those who profess education can play an integral part in deciphering and establishing some of these pre-conditions. Can you speak to what some of these pre-conditions for intelligent criticism might be, and what challenges do today's Professors of Education face when so many of society's associations seem bent on taking arms against such efforts?

P. M.: Preconditions for generating a critical pedagogy than can address the world situation today—and thereby avoid its current domesticated incarnations in college classrooms—means a lot of things, obviously. I can catalogue a few of them. Especially after 9/11, it means a societal commitment to freedom of speech, a willingness to challenge the current Bush regime's definition of patriotism (where an analysis of the root causes of terrorism is tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy), a willingness to permit open investigations of the U.S. government which means its connection to its intelligence agencies, what these agencies were willing to share with the United Nations, an open examination of U.S. attempts to destabilize foreign governments, its links to transnational corporations, and a commitment to critical self-reflexivity and dialogue in public conversations. Greater efforts must be made to enforce the separation of church and state in principle as well as more pressingly as a means of countering the Likudites in the Bush administration as well as Bush's own rabid brand of Christian fundamentalist beliefs (Bush is trying to turn the US into a covert theocracy). It also means struggling for a media that does not serve corporate interests. How can you have a democracy when you have the ideological state apparatuses in the hands of the corporations, which in turn are connected to the military industrial complex, etc.? Which in turn, develop monopolies, which in turn shamelessly take up the agenda of the Bush regime (FOX TV and Clear Channel are just two examples). I could talk about any one of these, and more, but I want to concentrate on another pre-condition: Understanding the fundamental basis of Marx's critique of capitalism.

Since I am well aware that Marxism is fairly marginalized in the academy—and especially the revolutionary critical pedagogy that has come to inform my work as a Marxist humanist _ I will take the time to situate my first answer with a bit of a theoretical overview. Since critical pedagogy's current phase of theoretical gestation does not deal adequately with the issue of class as a social relation, I feel it necessary to dispatch the reader for a couple of paragraphs into the very technical and, for those who are not accustomed to it, the sometimes esoteric and off-putting language of Marxist theory, but I don't see any way to avoid that. I hope that your readers will bear with me for a few paragraphs. Answering this question will serve to form the basis of the position that I have been taking in my work since coming to California and grounding my work in Marxist humanism. It might seem at first blush that I am trying to avoid the specifics of your question but this background information is crucial for subsequent answers. In other words, I believe this concept of value linked to the exploitation of labor-power—something British educationalist, Glenn Rikowski has written about in powerfully nuanced ways—is a crucial precondition for having an extended discussion about educational transformation. Without it we are stuck in what I have called the logic of `reformism', which I will discuss later on in the interview.

About a decade ago I decided to revisit Marx to get a better grasp of how capitalism works at its roots. Much of this was due to frequent visits to Latin America and spending time with Marxist activists there, and from conversations with British educationalists such as Paula Allman, Glenn Rikowski, Mike Cole, and Dave Hill as well as US educationalists such as John Holst, Wayne Ross and Rich Gibson. Rikowski encouraged me to re-visit Marx's Capital, vol. 1, and especially the labor theory of value and to explore the distinction between labor and labor-power. So I dusted off my volumes of Marx, and Marx and Engels, and began a new journey into Marxist theory. Well, let me get started. Casting aside for the moment current debates on the whole question of the `knowledge economy' and `fictitious capital' and related issues of `cyber-capitalism' (after all, our space is limited) I have come to the conclusion, along with many Marxists, that capital as a form of exploitation takes place fundamentally at the level of production, not at the level of circulation or exchange or in the sphere of consumption (which is not to say that these other spheres are unimportant in our analyses). It is to be aware of Marxist fundamentals—what Marxists and liberation theologians and others have been saying for decades—that the worker does not sell his or her labor to the capitalist, but rather he sells his labor-power or his labor capacity (that is, his skills, level of education, competencies, etc). The worker sells this labor-power as a commodity at a price or money equivalent of the value of his or her labor-power, and the value or price paid by the capitalist is determined by the quantity of labor required to produce and maintain the worker's existence (whatever it takes to educate the worker in the required skills and whatever is necessary to raise children who can replace the worker on the labor market, etc.). The worker in return gets no real wealth or power over commodities in general, but only power over the commodities that are needed to maintain him and perpetuate the class of laborers of which the worker belongs. The key point here—and really, this a very fundamental idea known as the labor theory of value—is that human labor-power expends more time than is necessary for its maintenance, and this labor power creates no value for the worker, but does create surplus value for the capitalist, for, in other words, private interest. Profit, or surplus value, is the result of living labor-power, or the exploitation of the living labor of workers. The value of labor-power is measured by the amount of labor required to reproduce itself as labor-power. The value of this special commodity known as labor-power is concretized in a certain amount of consumer goods that enable workers to sustain themselves and reproduce their offspring. When the value of consumer goods diminishes, the value of labor-power also diminishes and this remains the case even though the physical quantity of goods consumed by the worker remains the same. Likewise, if the productivity of the worker increases, the value of labor-power may decrease. Living labor produces all value, including the surplus value that valorizes capital, or that turns capital into a profit for the capitalist. The wages received by workers is only part of the value that they actually produce. The capitalists appropriate as their surplus value or profit the other part of the value produced by the workers. Living labor is subsumed by capital. That is, the labor-power of the worker is the source of all value in capitalist society.

Capital, therefore, is not a self-sufficient totality, but exists only by incorporating living labor outside of itself. In fact, a good argument has been made by the philosopher Enrique Dussel that all forms of surplus value (profit, interest, rent, etc) are derived from the surplus value of workers. The value of a commodity, because it is realized in circulation, gives the illusion that it arises from the process of circulation, and not production. In effect, labor-power produces nothing (its use value is that it produces exchange value), but when it is exercised through the act of laboring, it produces value. Put another way, labor power is a commodity, but of a special kind. Its use value is the act of laboring itself and the creation of value. It is this commodity that is purchased by the employer. The secret of capitalism is in the use that is made of this commodity by the capitalist after its purchase. Here is the key. Before anything is actually produced by the worker, the worker is already paid for his or her wealth-creating capacity or the availability of his capacity to labor, so that the proportion of the values which the worker produces by the actual act of laboring is more than the values he or she receives as equivalent to the availability of his or her labor-power. But this unpaid labor takes the semblance of an equal exchange. In other words, surplus value is uncompensated labor. In effect, it is what the wage worker gives to the capitalist without receiving any value in return. Surplus value, then, is the difference between the value created by work, and the amount the worker needs in order to subsist.

The point I want to stress is that once you understand capital as a social relation—the subsumption of concrete labor by abstract labor, the negation of concrete/particular labor time by abstract/general labor time—well, then you need to consider irrefutably that this social relation is one of exploitation and it presupposes or characterizes all social relations within capitalism. This is the ironclad logic of capital. I mean if it really is a matter of improving the level of consumption in materialistic terms of all workers, then there is no reason to get rid of capitalism. A worker's standard of living would continue to improve without marking any lessening of the degree of exploitation! In reality, workers cannot prevent the value of their own labor-power from diminishing or the theft of their surplus value from increasing exponentially. In other words, capitalism is given ballast, or is bolstered by a corrupt morality, or by a set of ideologies that perpetuates the false notion that relations between capitalists and workers is one of free and equal exchange, that what in fact the workers receive in terms of wages is equal to their contribution to production. Similarly, it is a lie to assume that capitalists receive as surplus value or profit, a contribution equal to their role in production given the factories and machines that they own and control. All of capitalist society is a theft of the surplus value of workers. Society becomes an independent, alienated entity from humankind precisely through the process of commodity fetishism. Workers hallucinate their labor as a property of the products themselves and the value form of labor that is produced. And of course, the corporate media help to perpetuate this mass hallucination.

The point I wish to underscore, Ken, is that the standard of living of workers can rise without this representing any diminution of their degree of exploitation, just as an improvement in the economy can actually result in greater numbers of people fired from their jobs. The point Marx is making is that capitalism is a system of slavery. Workers are not allowed to reproduce themselves unless they agree to labor for free for a certain number of hours during the day in order to provide surplus value for the capitalist. The workers need the permission of the capitalists to feed themselves and their families. This permission will be denied unless the workers agree to these terms, to work a certain length of time for the exclusive benefit of the capitalist. Now I have deliberately not addressed the issue of bourgeois property relations as they emerged on the basis of the development of commodity production as the shape by which the laws peculiar to commodity production assert themselves. But I don't want to get more technical here than I have already. Well, many educators today are writing about global capitalism, and that's a good thing. But not enough of them are looking at Marx's central premises surrounding the commodification of human labor and its value form.

Peter McLean interview continued in Vol 2, No.2 (December, 2003)



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Wood, Ellen Meiksins. (2003). Empire of Capital. London and New York: Verso.

Illustrations by Marcelo Layera