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Critical Pedagogy  

by Gregory Martin

Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies
   Volume 3, Number 2 (October 2005)
   ISSN 1740-2743


In this paper, I argue that a major task for Leftist activist academics is to be accountable for the real world political  implications of theory by working out ways to connect education with community struggles for social justice. Here, the action potentiality  of critical pedagogy is revealed in the recent writings of Marxist educators, who offer insights into how concrete political struggles can be waged in the sphere of reproduction (labour power) and against the imposition of an alienated life. Operating from the starting point that mutually mediated and collectively enacted struggle activates  capacities, ideals and solidarities capable of challenging the lived   conditions of social and economic injustice, this article provides a concrete account of academic/activism . I specifically focus on efforts to bridge the gap between theory and practice at the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. Under class struggle conditions today,  the focus of my involvement at the Bus Riders Union (BRU) was my personal commitment to critical/revolutionary praxis organized around the need for individual and social transformation, which is the aim of   revolutionary critical pedagogy.


In this paper, I discuss the possibilities for constructing critical pedagogy as a form of community praxis that intervenes in the negation of labour defined as exploitation. This project is linked to the   rematerialized field of Marxist educational scholarship for its  explanatory theory and concepts (class, ideology, exploitation,  revolution) (Allman, 1999, 2001; Cole, Hill, McLaren, & Rikowski,   2001a; Hill, 2004; McLaren & Farahmandpur, 2001; Rikowski, 2001; Scatamburo-D'Annibale & McLaren, 2003). The power of this explanatory  framework resides in the fact that it recognizes capital's direct involvement in the production of 'subjectivity-living labour power' (Rikowski, 2002). In this system of identity production, Marx's value theory of labour reveals the potentially of subjects resisting the  self-reduction of their labour power to the 'peculiar' form it takes as human capital under the alien and hostile powers of money and the state (Marx, 1967, p. 167; see also Rikowski, 2002). Here, the  political is to carry out praxis to eliminate exploitation, which   takes place at the most basic cell of the capitalist economy, the commodity form of labour (Marx, 1967). Without downplaying the importance of ideas and theoretical analysis, my argument is  straightforward enough. It begins with the idea that critical praxis can only take place through dialogue, by thinking dialectically, applying knowledge to concrete situations and by working together in  an organized and principled way for liberation. This, I argue, implies   a level of sensuous and embodied political engagement at the local scale of community, where individual development is organically tied   to collective action aimed at social transformation, which is the goal of revolutionary critical pedagogy. After a headlong dive into the gritty world of unemployment and factory work during a prolonged period of economic crisis in   Australia, my employment background has included working with the long-term unemployed in various community-based employment and training programs (Martin, 2000). Despite a steady diet of jobs, I   decided that I no longer wanted to be the empty subject of flexible and egregious capitalism. In 1996, I enrolled part-time in the Graduate Diploma in Education at Murdoch University, where I developed a fledging interest in critical pedagogy and action research. On this  basis, I left my home in Perth (the most isolated capital city in the world) in 1997 to pursue graduate studies in the United States, first   at Kent State University in Ohio and then at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). On the one hand, after I had delved into the Byzantine world of critical pedagogy during my studies at  Murdoch, I found much of the literature to be fresh and insightful   (Giroux, 1992; McLaren, 1994, 1997; McLaren & Lankshear, 1994). On the other, I was also interested in discovering how the ancient divide between theory and practice could be bridged or mediated through   Marx's ideal of praxis, with maximum political effect.

Fast forward to 1999, as this is when I arrived as a doctoral student in Los Angeles, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse  and class-stratified cities in the United States. One of the ways in   which class and racial segregation is enforced in Los Angeles is through the abysmal quality of the bus system and the corresponding lack of mobility for the urban poor, the disabled and the elderly, who  can barely afford to get to work, church, or public services, e.g.,  schools, hospitals (Mann, 1996). Like many other transit dependent  citizens of Los Angeles, I did not have the luxury of a car and was   forced to rely on an apartheid-like bus system, with its dilapidated fleet of cancer-causing diesel spewing buses, unpredictable scheduling, long intervals between buses and massive overcrowding (Mann, 1996). I always caught the No. 2 bus to UCLA, which originated from the urban core of the downtown area and traveled a long and winding path through the disparate ethnic enclaves (Chinese, Korean, Thai and Russian) of the city before reaching its final destination,  i.e., the beach communities, filled with white shiny faces, glittery eye-shadow and petrol guzzling SUVs. Without overplaying it, I felt physically sick to my stomach about the   structural racism and rampant social injustices I witnessed first hand as I rode the Los Angeles bus system. Trying to carry the city's contradictions within myself, I felt increasingly isolated and  emotionally fatigued as I attempted to establish a foothold in this megalopolis, situated within a County of 9 million inhabitants.

Although I was engaged in a strong critique of capitalism in my textual/writing practices, as the bus rattled and belched its way to UCLA I reflected that my inner struggle to become 'fully human'   (Freire, 1993, p. 27) would require a more militant, pedagogical commitment. Operating from the standpoint that self-generated emails, web-log postings and academic writings that 'speak truth to power' are no   substitute for real dialogue, in this paper I discuss my modest but  sincere attempt in life and struggle to fuse Marxist theory with more collective, politically engaged and embodied forms of educational radicalism. To develop this connective tissue, I reached out to the Bus Riders Union (BRU), a multi-racial, multi-lingual working class political organization built to fight against the state for a first  class public transportation system (Mann, 1999).

The BRU was   established in 1993 as an experimental project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a 'think tank-act tank' also based in Los Angeles that has a history of initiating and building left-organizational forms (Mann, 1999, 2001a, 2001b). Mobilizing the unorganized and demoralized, organizations such as the BRU are developing new models of labour/community organizing through innovative educative processes and political activities capable of challenging the liberal capitalist state (Hernandez, 1998). As society moves toward a deepening crisis of war and revolution ahead, this paper is an experiment in figuring out how academics interested in reactivating a critical pedagogy on the side of the oppressed can expand their involvement in some of organized and united struggles of community against the capitalist state. Bearing this point in mind, the basic premise of this paper is  that it is political for trouble making elements in the academy to act independent of the corporate interests of the university and of retreating political parties to reach out in solidarity to various sectors of the working class through social movements.
Value Consciousness in the Corporate University

Wearied with how both teaching and the study of social life are being restricted to improving the bottom line of big business, I struggle in my daily life with how to channel my alienation and discontent in a   progressive manner at the local scale of community. Although it is, perhaps, impossible to step outside of my geography of unearned  privilege, rather than engage in self-flagellation and other rituals of self-inflicted pain, my social/research practices embody the activist and goal-orientated epistemology of Marxism. As Marx (1978a) famously put it, an emphasis on interpretation (framing the problems of capitalism) ought not to replace the development of social practice (e.g., class struggle, political life and artistic endeavors) enacted through theory, which spawns both knowledge and creativity. Seen from  this angle, a political commitment to Marx's epistemology is consistent with Freire's (1993) pedagogical aims and practices, which are not only focused on identifying and evaluating power relations but  also dismantling them through praxis. Eschewing intellectual vanguardism, a distinctive feature of a Freirian methodology is its  ontological commitment to shared participation in learning and problem solving processes as well as capacity building, i.e., politicalorganization (Martin, in press). Given that the revolutionary leadership that comes forward in any class struggle does not have a monopoly over knowledge, Freire argued that praxis must be rooted in these dialogical principles of pedagogical engagement. This was because he had a historical understanding of how political outcomes are co-related to the variety of social processes and spatial   practices built into the cultural fabric of militant labour struggles and social movement organizations. Thus, although Freire (1993) was aware of the importance of revolutionaries organizing as  revolutionaries, he wrote that a pedagogy of the oppressed 'must be forged with, not for, the oppressed (whether individuals or peoples) in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity' (p. 30).

Unfortunately, an autopsy of the academy reveals that its teaching and research activities have been reduced to a treadmill devoted to increasingly callisthenic exercises in political futility (Routledge,  2004). Without lapsing into sentimentality and harking back to the  'good old days', which did not exist, now or ever, the intensified modes of production in the university that reduce our vital 'powers of  life' (Marx, 1988, p. 154) to forms of reified academic activity, inflect a specific kind of 'value-consciousness' (Uchida, 1988). What  makes this value-consciousness valuable is that it is tied to market  behaviors that generate revenues and profits for the university that is acting more and more like a corporation. The psychometric properties of this value-consciousness (a belief in competitive individualism, free market enterprise, private property and market determination of economic reward) are measured and reinforced through internal and external performance indicators such as benchmarking. As universities are increasingly subjected to the discipline of market  forces, these performance indicators (often punitive) exist as a  rallying point for capital as academics are incited to assert the value of their labour power by bringing more and more commercial value to their work (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997).
Let me make this explicit: the decision to devote one's energy to community struggles organized to fight against all forms of alienation, oppression and exploitation does not occur in a social vacuum (Martin, 2005; Hill, 2005). Academics like myself who want a life in higher education must consider the need to earn tenure to ensure the means of subsistence for themselves and in many cases, their families, which in turn introduces a worm of doubt into their enthusiasm. In Australia, at the very least, to stray from management's 'workload formula'[1] is to break the golden rule, which  is to 'give them want they want,' even if it is so corrupt and vulgar it shrinks the boundaries of our moral imaginations. What this contradictory and untenable social relation reflects is the structural subordination of labour to capital in the academy, and its vehicle of expression, absolute surplus value (Ebert, 1997; Martin, in press).
An Anatomy of Community

Given the multivariate ways in which our congealed identities and reified subjectivities are constituted through place and space, it is  not enough to talk abstractly about intervening in community. Within the negating tendencies of the university, the word 'community' has  been bandied about in perverse ways as a philistine vanguard of academic entrepreneurs with insatiable appetites come to the trough to feed (extramural grants, consultancies, university-industry partnerships) in the interests of major corporations or any other entity that has funds (Giroux & Myrsiades, 2001; Hill, 2004; Martin, 2005). Under neo-liberalism, community (school, family, work, leisure) has been reduced to a pedagogical tool that reduces us to the status of alienated and atomized individuals, who compete with other equally alienated and atomized individuals for the means of subsistence (Giroux, 2003). Contrary to popular opinion Marxism is about trying to reverse this dismal state of affairs through the establishment of   caring and loving communities, which build bridges to connect  different social sectors, people and organisations.  

Worn down by the variety of meanings attached like parasites to the term, I draw upon Marx's definition of community, which he argued, 'exists only in and through the division of labour' (1978b, p. 189). It is impossible to do justice to the full complexity and subtlety of Marx's analysis in this short piece, but in summary, he insisted that one of the most important factors in determining the unique social character of community is the mode of production. As a distinctive mode of producing and organizing community that includes its boundaries, social forces and motion, capitalism is best summed up in the opening statement of the Communist Manifesto: 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' (Marx & Engels, 1967, p. 79). In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels outline how  the structure and ideology of community become subservient to capital with the triumph of commodity production. Today, there is plenty of  discontent at the base of capitalist society and the contemporary  relevance of Marx and Engel's writings is best captured in a quote  from the same pamphlet, 'Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly  facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat' (p. 80). Engels  specified the meanings of these terms in a footnote:
By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means   of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live. (Marx & Engels, 1967, p. 79)
Without overlooking the complex, ritualized and brutal ways in which the history and spatial ordering of capitalism are rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy in countries such as the United States (e.g., the theft of Native American land that provided the  foundational basis for the success of capitalism), the general interpretive line here is that labour presupposes the construction of  community. Moreover, it is Marx's historical materialist critique of  society's economy that will play a determinate factor in the struggle  to create a communist future, where 'we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all' (Marx & Engels, 1967, p. 105). On this point, as  capital extends its grubby reach into every nook and cranny of the  world, it is worth quoting Marx (1978b) at length:  
The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers  (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by  dismissing the general idea of it from one's mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible   without the community. Only in community (with others has each)   individual the means to cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the  previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusionary community, in which  individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a  completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association. (p. 197)  

Here, what Anderson (1983) refers to as the 'imagined' community of the nation state is not a natural form or homogenous entity but is divided into classes with antagonistic interests, views, cultures, and ethics. As a major site of oppression, the idea of community as a  social container has played a historic role for the bourgeoisie to develop and protect its economy and system of exploitation. Exposing the facade of national unity communist ideology, as encapsulated in Marx and Engel's slogan 'Proletarians of all Countries Unite', urges  us to abandon any false allegiance to the liberal capitalist nation  state. Communism, which ought not to be reduced to its Stalinist incarnations that negated the 'free, conscious activity" of the individual, is dedicated to the cause of total emancipation (Marx,  1988, p. 76). This, of course, necessarily and inescapably, implies the struggle against poisonous and pernicious ideological constructs such as racism and sexism, which take on specific forms under  capitalism. Acknowledging the values, frameworks and interests that  work to construct the 'Other' as deviant, irrational and less than human, Marxists recognize the real and material effects of these  divisive categories invented to justify exploitation and oppression (McLaren, 1997).
Revolutionary Community

From a relational standpoint, the 'imagined' community of the university does not exist in a separate realm from working class  communities, i.e., regular workers who make it possible for academics to speak, write and teach effectively, even if their contributions appear anonymously (Hubbard, 1996). Within a highly bureaucratized and hierarchical division of labour in the university, academics rely upon  a vast background army of 'invisible' workers (often women) who receive little or no credit. Other aspects of our lives are also  different, with the relative freedom to think about ideas and to speak  out (Hubbard, 1996). The reason I want to bring attention to this social relation is because academic freedom (autonomy) is a cover for a privileged social position, which has enabled a parasitic layer of  intellectuals who 'speak truth to power' on behalf of the oppressed and exploited to make audacious grabs at academic stardom on the ghetto fabulous conference circuit, e.g., signing books for obsessive fans. To resolve this contradictory situation, academics will need to consciously rework the 'imagined' community of the university as it is  normalised in everyday labour practices. In other words, the creation of new forms of human sociability (community) will require academics to take responsibility in bridging the two worlds (Hubbard, 1996). The underlying issue here is that if academics are to develop a reflexive culture of orienting toward working class communities then a new relation between theory and practice is required (Hudis, 2003).
As a way of de-sacralizing the space of the university, I believe that academics ought to place greater emphasis in their habitus and field of practice on renewing dialogue and interaction with activists who are working at the most grassroots level of militant labour struggles and the leftward moving layer of social movements (Hunter, 2004;  Martin, in press). With regard to differences in structure and strategy, these collective experiments in popular power are mediating forms of participation and front-line political organization by which theory-and ideology-are transposed into material forces (new ways of  life, new ways of being, and new ways of communicating). Unfortunately, with no social base, academics on the progressive left (let alone Marxists) tend to fetishise activism as an object of study,   thereby reducing it to the status of a commodity (e.g., book reviews, awards, royalties). With merely one note to pluck, their self-authored  calls for 'resistance' only grow to be reified and materialized in  scholarly books and journals as 'high knowledge', which contributes to the demonisation of academic discourses and practices on the 'street' (Martin, in press).
Avoiding the errors of pragmatism and the 'end' of philosophy, I do  not wish to devalue the dignity and importance of intellectual work. On the contrary, as Marx emphasized, the struggle over theory (as an ideal image of the world) is socially practical, especially as ideas are altered, modified or perhaps discarded (if they are wrong) in the course of struggling to put them into practice. Here, as distinct from bourgeois philosophy (idealism), Marx's 'reflection theory' of  knowledge (Lenin's term) is understood to depend upon activity in material production (Ruben, 1977/1979, p. 4). What matters here is that given the practice of acquiring knowledge is a social act, an individual's geography matters as theory and practice are dialectically intertwined at the local scale of community, e.g., values, ethics and interests (Ruben, 1977/1979, p. 109).
Revolutionary Pedagogies of Engagement

To fight the unreasonable demands of the ruling class, radical pedagogies such as Paula Allman, Peter McLaren, Dave Hill, Glenn Rikowski, Mike Cole, Ramin Farahmandpur, Helen Raduntz, and Peter Mayo have grappled with and attempted to respond to the demands of social movements for political and educational action by bringing Marxist theory back into conversation with the field of critical pedagogy. In  doing so, these Marxist stalwarts have provided an alternative conceptual framework, in the favor of working class struggle. As painstakingly demonstrated by McLaren (1997, 2000, 2003), the   ancestral DNA of revolutionary critical pedagogy reveals that it grew out of disillusionment with critical pedagogy, which was caught in the  quicksand of liberal/deconstructive/post Marxist approaches to social  change over the past two decades. Even today McLaren (2000) reminds  us:
The conceptual net known as critical pedagogy has been cast so wide and at time so cavalierly that it has come to be associated with  anything dragged up out of the troubled and infested waters of  educational practice, from classroom furniture organized in a 'dialogue friendly' circle to 'feel good' curricula designed to increase students' self image. It has become, in other words, repatriated by liberal humanism and cathected to a combination of middle-brow, town-hall meeting entrepreneurship and Sunday School  proselytizing. Its multicultural education equivalent can be linked to a politics of diversity that includes 'tolerating difference' through  the celebration of 'ethnic' holidays and themes such as Black History  Month and Cinco de Mayo. If the term 'critical pedagogy' is refracted  onto the stage of current educational debates, we have to judge it as  having been largely domesticated in a manner that many of its early exponents, such as Brazil's Paulo Freire, so strongly feared. (pp. 97-98)
At any rate, this focus on critical pedagogy as a vehicle for interpellating individuals as particular normalised subjects into the 'imagined' community of liberal democratic capitalism is changing. As a reaction to this primarily institutional form of co-option, domestication and vulgarization, revolutionary critical pedagogy (a term first coined by Paula Allman, 1999, 2001) is a relatively new field of materialist intervention in the field of regular and adult education. What makes revolutionary critical pedagogy a radical shift in social priorities is that it seeks to enrich the knowledge base of grassroots political movements through the development of social relations (labour practices) that encourage critical analysis, genuine dialogue and problem solving based upon people's everyday knowledge of capitalism (Hurst-Mann, 1998; McLaren, 2000). It is important to bear in mind that the goal of such relational and participatory pedagogical practice is not to 'integrate' individuals into the existing social order but to enable them to intervene in the way knowledge is produced   by providing them with opportunities for imaging and creating alternative spaces beyond the dead-end horizon of capitalism (Hurst-Mann, 1998).
This struggle for life and dignity is only possible in terms of the dialectic and it is difficult to deny that the existing literature is a little too thin on examples of actual application. With regards to   developing an ontological commitment to the duality of human agency and structure that is both realistic and historical (Despain, 1996), the failure of revolutionary critical pedagogy to account for its   implementation within complex and changing praxis communities can only  lead to discouragement. For this reason, 'organic intellectuals', to  take advantage of Gramsci's (1971) use of the term, should not lag  behind the opportunities in today's situation by engaging solely in  propagandistic and information practices aimed at a select audience. Instead, an actual task for the tiny cadre of socialists in universities is to settle the problem of strategic orientation to the working class. Although total entry is not possible, I believe that  concrete activity in the form of dialogue and interaction could enable Marxist academics to play a role in maintaining and building working   class political organizations that might acquire an expanded audience for individuals and groups interested in fighting for an ecologically  based socialist future.