A Review of “Social Movements I & II”

 Gilbert Sebastian  

T.K. Oommen (ed.) Social Movements I: Issues of Identity (pp.252+x, HB), & Social Movements II: Concerns of Equity and Security, (pp.352+xii, HB), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

The volumes edited by T.K. Oommen constitute a sociological contribution to the study of social movements in India. The first volume deals with identitarian movements and the second, with movements for equity and security. For spatial constraints, we do not attempt a review and critique of individual articles but confine ourselves to the theoretical issues identified by the editor himself.


The first volume on identitarian movements has two sections. The first section on Religious and Caste Movements has contributions from Kenneth W. Jones on Socio-religious movements, Christophe Jaffrelot on ethno-religious mobilisation, Walter Fernandes on conversion movements, Vivek Kumar on Dalit mobilization and Shail Mayaram on the emergence of Tablighi Jamaat as a transnational relgious movement. The second section on Regional, Linguistic and Tribal Movements has contributions from Robert L. Hardgrave on the dravidian movement, Dipankar Gupta on the Shiv Sena movement, Sanjib Baruah on the Assam movement, Surajit Sinha on tribal movements and Frederick S. Downs on Christian conversion movements in northeast India. Apparently, the contribution by Vivek Kumar was previously unpublished.

Speaking of identitarian movements, Oommen mentions four processes, namely, homogenisation, pluralisation, traditionalisation and hybridisation at work leading to persistence, eclipse and mutation of identities (I: 40).

Introducing the section on regional, linguistic and tribal movements, interestingly, he mentions the three Great Traditions of India with civilisational differences – Aryan-Hindu-Sanskritic, Dravidian-Hindu-Tamil and Islamic-Urdu (I: 160). Ethnicity, religion and language come into play here.

Social Movements IThe second volume has three sections. The first section on Peasant and Labour Movements has contributions on Indian peasant uprisings by Kathleen Gough, Naxalbari movement by Partha Mukherji, Bhoodan movement by T.K. Oommen, new farmers’ movement in Maharashtra by D.N. Dhanagare, Indian labour movement by S.M. Pandey, trends in industrial relations in India during 1950-2000 by Debashish Bhattacherjee, labour activism by women in the unorganized sector by Supriya RoyChowdhury. The second section on Women and Students’ Movements has papers from Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar on women’s movement in India during 1970s-1990s, from Rajni Palriwala on anti-dowry movement in Delhi, from Martha Alter Chen on the Self-Employed Women’s Association, from Philip G. Altbach and also from T.K. Oommen on the Indian student movement. The third section on Ecological and Environmental Movements has papers from Vandana Shiva on ecology movements in India, from Ranjit Dwivedi on the role of environmental groups in the making of Protected Areas, and finally from T.K. Oommen on protests against developmental displacement. The contributions by Rajni Palriwala, Martha Alter Chen and the one by T.K. Oommen on movements against displacement are, apparently, unpublished elsewhere.

Introducing the second volume on issues of equity and security, Oommen makes a pertinent point that “equity rather than equality is the motive force behind contemporary social movements” (II: 39). He says that even “radical groups are not arguing for equality of rewards these days” but are only demanding “equality of opportunity” or going a step further and demanding “equality of condition” through ensuring “distributive justice” (II: 39). His understanding of “comprehensive security” including the military, political, economic, socio-cultural and environmental dimensions (II: 40) is, indeed, a welcome concept in these days of extreme paranoia.

In the introduction to the volumes by T.K. Oommen, the theoretical contributions of the “founding fathers” are discussed: Durkheimian structural differentiation, Weberian rationality and Marxian class analysis. He rightly argues that Marx’s “basic argument” on social movements “stood the test of time” except for his overemphasis on collective rationality and lack of emphasis on non-class collectivities (5-6).  In defining social movements, Oommen counts in all mobilisations with ideology and organisational framework, irrespective of goals (change or stability) or means (violent or non-violent) (11). He says that one of the aspects – ideology, organisation, leadership – acquires primacy at different phases of all movements (13). He says that the classification of “old” and “new” social movements is inadmissible in the Indian context (14, 38). His classification of movements based on the type of collectivity as biological (women, youth, etc.), primordial (caste, religious, linguistic, tribal, etc.) and civil (workers, peasants, students, environmental movements, etc.) is useful. A better term than “biological” (15-17) should have been used since apparently, these are primarily socially constituted categories. He distinguishes between the instrumental and symbolic goals of movements. Instrumental goals seek reallocation of wealth and power and symbolic goals seek redefinition of status and privilege. The term, “instrumental”, however, sounds rather pejorative. ‘Re-distributive’ could have been a more appropriate term.

Oommen considers mobilisation and institutionalisation as a dialectical process and does not oppose the latter. Questionably, he simply brushes aside the perspective that movements do often go through a life-cycle (25) and may even turn into vestiges of the past weighing down upon the present. He says, “[N]one of the four processes – repression, discreditation, co-optation and institutionalization – will herald the death-knell of a movement. Movements will survive if they have the required legitimacy and appropriate resources” (28). Apparently, he is not sufficiently critical of the processes like co-optation and institutionalisation.


Interestingly, right at the beginning of his introduction, Oommen briefly discusses how the disciplinary focuses – historical/political, psychological and sociological – in studying social movements, the object of inquiry, vary. Sociologists were late-comers into this field. Nevertheless, compartmentalisation of knowledge-fields as such could hamper the advancement of knowledge. Indeed, it is when history, sociology, economics and political studies are knit together in an interdisciplinary manner that we can have an enlightening study.

Oommen says, “There is no hierarchy of identities, but only contextuality of identities” (I: 40). One reason why Oommen has missed the punch is because the notion of primacy (not a hierarchy in an a priori sense) among social contradictions is missing. At any given point of social development, one or the other contradiction comes to the fore and assumes primacy and urgency over other contradictions which of course, are related to the former. Addressing this principal contradiction may lead to viewing social reality in an intersectional manner so that different kinds of oppressions can be interrelated. For instance, addressing the land question in contemporary India entails taking on the historically constituted property structure, addressing the interrelated issues of class, caste and gender.

Along with this, comes the question of the quality and extent of change. Oommen junks M S A Rao’s classification of movements as reformist, transformativeSocial Movements II and revolutionary, for shifting the defining criteria. But it would have been quite useful to retain this classification on the criterion of quality and extent of change. This would be clearer if one tries to substantively understand the social and political movements during their high point in the 20th century. We could classify them under four rubrics on grounds of the structural bases and the transformative agencies involved: (1) Class struggles; (2) Anti-colonial and national liberation movements; (3) Social liberation movements of women, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, etc., which are pitted against dominant sections within a society more than against a regressive State and global capitalism towards which they maintain a love-hate relationship; and (4) General democratic movements such as anti-globalisation movements, environmental movements, etc. The extent of social transformation achieved through radical class struggles and progressive national liberation movements are, apparently, of a qualitatively higher order than those achieved by social liberation movements and general democratic movements. This is because the former were able to take head on macro-structures of de-humanisation like State, semi-feudalism and global monopoly capitalism and therefore the consequences for the system were much more serious. The sociological classification of movements by Oommen looks more abstract than substantively historical. The latter approach would have entailed seeing the movements in a process of change or movement in time, assigning them importance according to their transformative potential.

On the Indian scenario, Oommen also makes a controversial remark: “[T]here was/is no archetype class movement in India; the equivalent of that was the anti-colonial movement (37).” Telangana, Tebhagha and Naxalbari movements and the class struggles led by the Naxalites/Maoists today, with a wide geographical spread, challenge this argument. That the Maoist movement interrelates class with other social categories such as nationality, caste and gender does not disqualify it from the status of a class-based movement. The anti-colonial movement had, most often, failed to address issues of class/social equity and as G. Haragopal says, bequeathed us the negative legacy of a false dichotomy between the ‘social’ and the ‘political’.

Oommen says that “the real threat to the state emanates from primordial collectivities”. The book “leaves out movements which are explicitly ‘political’ … such as anti-colonial or secessionist movements” (19; I: 160). This omission is serious if we consider the immense transformative potential of nationality movements. Considering the fact that Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, the most draconian legislation in the country violating the very right to life in the narrow sense of the term, is operational in the intensely militarised frontier nationalities, the issue of the ongoing nationality movements merited treatment at least from a human rights angle.

Crucially, Oommen draws a distinction between “hegemonic” and “emancipatory” identitarian movements (I: 42). Anchoring this distinction in the contemporary rights discourse, we could, better term them as “privileges-based” and “rights-based” identitarian movements. The former are disempowering and the latter, empowering. Given this perspective, the Shiv Sena movement finding its place alongside the rights-based regional, linguistic and tribal movements is an anomaly in the book.

He argues that it is cumulative dominance and coercive equilibrium that becomes the context for social movements (I: 42). However, the cumulatively oppressed and coercively repressed may, often be too weak to initiate social/political movements on their own. Instead, it may be more useful to harp back on the Marxian notion of relative deprivation as the context for movements. Moreover, ‘humiliation’ rather than just exploitation may spur movements.

We could describe a movement as ‘an idea whose time has come’. There is, at times, a simultaneous upsurge of movements in an epoch of social transformation such as the colonial period in India. The making of an epoch of social transformation involves complex interactions of material conditions including the cultural context on the one hand with subjective forces on the other. Collective human agency may be held to be the crucial factor in this process.

Oommen notes the interesting difference between old class activism of the “union-mode” and the new community activism of the ‘campaign-mode’ (50). A separate section critically analysing the global civil society movements could have been usefully undertaken in the book.

If we agree with Manoranjan Mohanty that “rights are political affirmations in course of struggle” or movements, one cannot underestimate the importance of studies on social movements. Oommen needs to be commended for this collection of otherwise scattered across papers. Along with the volumes from Ghanashyam Shah, these volumes can be useful reference material on social movements in India. Oommen’s introduction to the volumes, “On the Analysis of Social Movements” carried in both volumes is a must-read for researchers on social and political movements in India. It is a valuable contribution to the typologies of movements, bringing up many subtle insights, besides sparking off little controversies.

Oommen rightly says that ongoing movements are rarely studied (II: 322) and [probably, for this reason,] what we have is more of a “sociology of movements” rather than a “sociology for movements” (II: 318). For all the crucial insights that they provide, regrettably, Oommen’s edited volumes, may qualify only as a “sociology of movements”.

Gilbert Sebastian is associated with Developing Countries Research Centre (DCRC), University of Delhi, New Delhi. He can be contacted at gilbertseb@gmail.com.

A Review of “Fascism: Theory and Practice”

Yasser Shams Khan

Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2007 (Originally published by Pluto, London, 1999)

Dave Renton’s book on fascism is structured to serve two purposes: firstly to debunk the current intellectual wave of scholars like Griffin and Eatwell, who consider that “fascist studies” should concentrate on the ideological aspect of fascism and not the specific political contexts (as there were only two historical precedents); and secondly to provide an alternate approach from a Marxist perspective. Renton is also against any apolitical reading of fascism. He polemically emphasizes the imperative of historians to politically situate themselves against fascism while trying to understand it so as to prevent it from gaining prominence in the contemporary political circuit. It is within this purview that his book needs to be looked at.

Fascism is far from dead. The 1990s has seen a regeneration of fascist groups and parties in Europe in the form of the BUF (British Union of Fascists) in Britain, FN (Front National) in France, and the long lingering RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh), the ideological backbone of right parties in India. Dave Renton's FascismHowever many scholars debate whether such parties can be considered fascists, as according to them fascism is an ideology, with certain attributes based on their interpretation of Italian fascism particularly, which renders their definitions static and reductionist. In the words of Roger Griffin, Fascism is described as “palingenetic ultra-nationalism”. Although the four scholars Renton debunks offer varied definitions of fascism, yet they all adhere to Weber’s construction of an “ideal type”. Such transcendent attributes has allowed Griffin to separate fascism from Nazism albeit conceding that they have a common mythic core. Renton criticizes such scholars who lay undue emphasis on theory and neglect the practical, concrete example before them. He censures Zeev Sternhell for combining socialism and nationalism and creating a new ideology of ‘socialism without the proletariat’ which consequently became fascism. Renton exposes the flaw in such theories. These scholars have taken the fascist demagogues’ political pronouncements at face value. If a Mussolini or a Hitler was using anti-capitalist, socialistic rhetoric, does it mean that fascism is anti-capitalist and pro-socialist?

Renton’s preferred alternative approach provides a delineation of Marxist thoughts on fascism along with its ramifications. Left Marxists associate fascism with capitalism, claiming fascism to be nothing more than an extreme form of capitalist reactionary forces active in times of capitalist economy crises. However this does not explain the mass appeal of fascism as observed in practice. Fascism thrived as a mass movement more than an elitist movement. The Right Marxist consider fascism to be detached from capitalism as it had other bases of support particularly the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. The rhetoric of fascism appealed to these classes particularly during times of economic crises when unemployment was high. Official Marxist theories under the Comintern oscillated between these two approaches. However there were Marxists whose understanding of fascism did not come under the official purview of the Comintern and of Stalin. They were August Thalheimer, Ignazio Silone, Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky. These Marxists synthesized the left and right Marxist theories adopting the dialectical method. According to Trotsky, perhaps the most prominent of the four dissident Marxists, fascism was a “reactionary mass movement”. Fascism is inherently contradictory. Through its rhetoric and charismatic personality of its leader it appeals to the classes which constitute the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. However, its actions, once in power, prove detrimental to the very class which acts as its support base. Fascism in power resulted in the defeat and suppression of the working class in the interest of capital. Fascism in practice was anti-democratic, anti-socialist, pro-capitalist. The dialectical approach to fascism is appropriate precisely for this reason: it manages to conceptually capture fascism in its very contradictoriness – as a mass movement with reactionary goals and interests.

The two historical precedents of fascism show that fascism rose in times of capitalist crisis, popular frustration and the inability of the working class to channel this frustration towards a viable anti-capitalist/socialist future. The working class leadership was marked by sectarianism and fragmentation, which stunted its ability to assess the gravity of the fascist threat and challenge it at its very inception.

Renton’s approach in this book is not just elucidatory, but polemical. He is writing against fascism, even as he is writing about it. As mentioned earlier, Renton’s imperative in writing about fascism is to provide a critique not only of reductive scholars of fascism but also of fascism itself, thus preventing it from attaining a political clout in contemporary politics. In his conclusion, he explicitly emphasizes Trotsky’s solution of a United Front of workers to combat fascism. In addition to this, mass protests against fascist violence and acts of racism also serve as preventive measures to beat back the numbers of fascist supporters. The ultimate revolutionary solution would be a systematic overhaul of the current capitalist society to one in which, as Renton conclusively states, “the potential of all humanity is fully realized and all forms of oppression are swept away”.

Dave Renton’s short book on fascism serves its polemical intent, however there are a few points of contention. Although Zeev Sternhell’s argument of affinities between fascism and leftist or Jacobin politics is dismissed, Renton does not seem keen to compare left and right totalitarianisms. Also Renton’s preference for the Marxist approach to understanding fascism is because it captures the contradictory nature of fascism itself, and Marxism being a holistic theory enables preventive measures to be taken against it. Nonetheless, as Chris Brooke notes in his review, Renton’s analysis of the historical development of fascism in Italy and Germany is unsatisfactory. Renton disregards the “constraints imposed by the patterns of historical development”. Brooke’s point is that certain aspects of Italian and German history, particularly after the unification, when rapid modernization was coupled with “the failure to consolidate a functioning parliamentary democracy” before the Great War, gave the impetus to Fascist parties to mobilize and gain popular support in these countries, unlike in countries like France or England. Brooke’s point is well taken as it throws light on more complex processes of historical necessity, and along with Renton’s treatment of the political processes completes the broad analysis of fascism.

Yasser Shams Khan is currently pursuing his Masters in English Literature from Delhi University.

A Review of “Sea of Poppies”

Paresh Chandra

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, Viking-Penguin, New Delhi, 2008.

“Back then, a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household’s needs, leaving a little over, to be sold: no one was inclined to plant more because of all the work it took to grow poppies…Such punishment was bearable when you had a patch or two of poppies…but what sane person would want to multiply these labours when there was better, more useful crops to grow, like wheat, dal, vegetables? But those toothsome winter crops were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated”. (29)

“As a family, their experience lay in the managing of kings and courts, peasants and dependants: although rich in land and property, they had never possessed much by way of coinage; what there was of it they disdained to handle themselves, preferring to entrust it to a legion of agents, gomustas and poor relatives. When the old zemindar’s coffers began to swell, he tried to convert his silver into immovable wealth of the kind he best understood – land, houses, elephants, horses, carriages and, of course, a budgerow more splendid than any other craft then sailing on the river. But with new properties there came a great number of dependants who had all to be fed and maintained; much of the new land proved to be uncultivable, and the new houses quickly became an additional drain since the Raja would not suffer them to be rented”. (86-87)


In a country like India, the origin of capitalism becomes hard to extricate from its colonial history. Capitalism seemed to set in catastrophically – the logic of capital descended upon a reality in which lives were still dominated by inward oriented, localised rural economies with age-old unchallenged hierarchies. Indians were still trying to emerge out of the anxieties that the crisis of feudalism (represented by the Mughal empire’s decline) entailed, when they suddenly found themselves located in the evolving cartography of the capitalist world system. This novel to my mind narrates the exposure of Indian people to capitalist demands, mediated as it was by a period dominated by the accumulative logic of British capitalism. When I say people, I don’t use it in the usual populist sense, but in a much wider one; “people” includes the ordinary people, feudal lords, women, men, children, everybody. I speak of a general sense of having been caught up like pawns in a chess game, like minor characters in the determined world of a tragedy. I don’t suggest that no person had agency, but the larger sense was nonetheless of being ruled.

I will try to clarify: I do not mean that individuals like Deeti and Neel have completely no hold over the reality they inhabit, or that they are unable to assert their respective individualities. In their interaction with individuals these characters show resilience in adverse circumstances. Interestingly, Deeti a poor ruralSea of Poppies woman seems to be able to handle it better than Neel, the upper class, male zemindar. But having said that, it is true, I think, that they are unable to gain a reasonable grasp over the swift changes that engulf their lives. Their alienation starts with the destruction of those relationships and ways of living that had ordered their world.

The passages I have quoted show us the lack of ease which characterised their perception of this changing world. For Deeti and her lot, the idea of not producing what one needs, in order to survive, was alien. Furthermore, because the new set of superstructural apparatuses which would revolve around a money/market based system had not yet evolved, they were stuck in an in-between zone of discomfort. The second passage works like a lesson out of Balzac. The lesson being this: Money is no longer money as money alone but also money as capital.  Money is valuable as long as it is capable of being transformed into capital; which in turn is possible only when money is used to extract surplus value, or in common parlance, to earn more money or profit; so while the money in the hands of a worker or an aristocrat is not capital, in the hand of a banker it is so. This quite obviously the Raja did not understand, and it was this lack of understanding, combined with the continued indolence of feudal ways that led to the downfall of the family.

Is this what the novel is about then? I suggest that while this is so, it is also not quite so. The discursive space that histories (referring to the discipline of history) of India occupy are usually monologic, sometimes defined by nationalism, sometimes by post-colonial ardour, and sometimes even by celebration of colonisation. To explain what I mean by “monologic”, in short: it refers to a plain of being in which only one privileged narrative is understood to explain both the spatial and temporal arrangements of objects and events. The narratives of theocracy, nationalism, state and when investigated at one discrete moment, of resistance are examples of what I call monologic discourses.

A novelistic ontology is different from if not opposed to the sphere that any monologic discourse occupies (as Kundera indicates in the first chapter of Testament Betrayed, this comes out very well in Khomeini’s opposition to The Satanic Verses). While this is not the place to explain this assertion, I can direct the reader to what I think is a crucial clue. The European novel (Ghosh’s work to my mind, falls in this genealogy of the novel) is a part of the same constellation of notions as modernity, Cartesian doubt, relativism and so on. The epistemological thrust of the novel is such that it continuously redefines itself as a genre/art and also resuscitates and radically transforms what it takes as its subject. So, true novelisation of Indian colonial history would be to render to a state of ambiguity and open-endedness a discourse that for the Indian imagination is a finished narrative.

*      *      *

What does poppy signify? To answer this question in a regrettably schematic manner: it signifies three things. It stands for the logic of capitalist production, capitalist distribution and also alienation. As one of the passages I quoted above demonstrates, for Deeti, who had always produced for self-consumption, growing so much poppy seemed absurd. She did not understand the “profit motive”. With mass cultivation of poppy, the colonised land as well the colonised consciousness was introduced to the idea of the commodity: an item produced not to be consumed but to be sold. Furthermore, the serf who had some control over her/his labour process was transformed into a worker who had absolutely no control. The decisions were made on a plain beyond comprehension of the worker.

To come to its second signification, saying that this refers to capitalist distribution is somewhat deceptive insofar as the spheres of production and distribution are internally related moments in the same circuit of capital in which surplus value is created and realised. The Opium Wars of 1839-40 were fought because the paternalistic Chinese monarchy was unwilling to let the British continue poisoning its subjects, and such unwillingness defied the interests of British capitalism. So then this becomes one of the many wars fought for the “profit motive.” By distribution I refer to the market and to the entire process that determines what is sold in the market and the means used to perpetuate the rule of the market.

Finally, poppy becomes a symbol for an entire way of life, a life of un-involvement, of alienation, of escapism. Alienation which starts with man’s relation with the larger world, seeps into his very existence, all his relationships; and “drug abuse” as the twentieth century teaches us is a good way of escaping it, or at least a good way of attempting such an escape. Whether it is Deeti’s lame husband or the disillusioned skipper of theIbis, opium is the most easily available cure for alienation. On the margins of consciousness exists Ahfat, the decaying, at times barely-human addict, acting as warning for those who attempt such an escape.

*      *      *

The creation of a narrative that contains well defined characters and their stories brings into a zone of comfort this period which we otherwise encounter in discourses that try to maintain a degree of distance in their treatment. Ideas like those of the “colonial encounter,” “divide and rule,” and so on no longer have the epic dimensions that they assume not just in popular historiography but also (and more importantly) in popular culture.  In this novel, the foreigner becomes one of the many determinants that individuals deal with. We do not encounter tales of pain and destruction brought upon Indian reality by the English, but learn of the manner in which life in its polyphony draws into its fold the new ruler, the old ruler, and the eternal subject. The process of novelisation begins here, with the breaking of the epic-like self-sufficiency and finality that the discourse of the colonial past usually has. The past does not remain a container that merely keeps pouring its never-ending supply of manna into the present without making itself available to reinterpretation or doubt.

As a novelist, Ghosh does not depend solely upon historiography as a source of history. Half-consciously if not consciously there is a lot he takes from novels of the past. His subject matter takes him to a period of time when Indian history was very directly linked with that of England, and quite understandably, his characters bring to mind types from literature, especially novels, of those times. The Burnham-Kendalbushe pair reminds us of the Bounderby-Gradgrind alliance – entrepreneurial and accumulative skill combined with a proper ideological defence. The afeemkhor thinker, Captain Chillingworth, who seemed to have learnt with experience the hollowness of evangelical zeal and had seen the true logic of colonialism, could well have been a character out of Conrad. It is actually through a tracing of these lineages that one finds the actual novelistic tradition within which to place this work. The difference is that while the centre of Conrad’s work was the construction or deconstruction of the European consciousness in the colony, the centre of Ghosh’s work is the reconfiguration of the colonised subjectivity under the influence of colonialism.

In an interactive session with the author (which I happened to attend) held in New Delhi, following the release of Sea of Poppies, a gentleman made an observation concerning the description of the opium factory (a passage that Ghosh chose to read out). He said that parts of the description struck him as remarkably similar to Dante’s description of Hell. Interestingly Ghosh’s response (if my memory serves me right) was something to this effect: this semblance might be present and discernible, because of the place that Dante has come to occupy in our consciousness. It is an interesting comment because in it Ghosh places himself and his reader, quite willingly, in a history influenced by European culture. Ghosh is an Indian writer, who acknowledges his debt to European literature, writing a novel which according to me falls in line with the European novel, at least one of whose major subjects is the colonisation of India. I make this observation because I think it is crucial for our understanding of the fact that while there might be nothing ambivalent about Ghosh’s indictment of certain English characters or the logic of colonialism, he is nonetheless not revisiting colonialism to mourn the loss of a pre-encounter state.

*      *      *

The ship is a dual metaphor. On one hand it is a metaphor for a journey, in this case an unfinished one since the novel ends in the middle of the ocean. On the other, it becomes a metaphor for fate, insofar as once they are on the ship, the direction in which the people move is determined by the movement of the ship, and hence, it becomes possible to discern who has greater agency and authority within the limits set by history. At the same time the ship is not merely a metaphor, but is also the seed from which the narrative germinates. I suggest that the ship came first and everything else later. The writer begins with a ship that is going to make a journey from India to the Caribbean (of course broadly speaking the writer has already decided what he wants to write about). On exploring the ship he finds a set of people on it, namely, a bunch of Indian (to be) indentured labourers, Indian soldiers in British employment, a few prisoners, captain, steward, seamen and so on. Here onwards he charts the histories of these characters. That they meet on this ship is no artificially contrived coincidence, since they are simply a bunch of passengers on a ship, a very commonplace occurrence. The history gets an interesting twist when the ship is revealed to be one of those that served in the Middle Passage in the transfer of Africans to the Caribbean and to America as slaves (Zachary’s story is a similar twist).

Before getting on the ship, Ghosh explores the sequences of exploitation and suffering that characters undergo, in which the role of the new rulers and of older prejudices is clearly discernible. At this point, the Ibiscomes like the saving ark to Kalua and Deeti, a phenomenal reconstituting of the slave ship. Furthermore this ship then becomes a site where camaraderie is created – a carnivalesque demolition of older hierarchies takes place.

“On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same: it’s like taking a boat to the temple of Jagannatha, in Puri. From now on, and forever afterwards, we will be ship-siblings – jahaz-bhais and jahaz-bahens – to each other. There will be no differences between us.

This answer was so daring, so ingenuous, as fairly to rob the women of their breath. Not in a lifetime of thinking, Deeti knew, would she have stumbled upon an answer so complete, so satisfactory and so thrilling in its possibilities. In the glow of the moment, she did something she would never have done otherwise: she reached out to take the stranger’s hand in her own. Instantly, in emulation of her gesture, every other woman reached out too, to share in this communion of touch. Yes, said Deeti, from now on, there are no differences between us; we are jahaz-bhai and jahaz-bahen to each other; all of us children of the ship”. (356)

This carnival is a life-in-death situation, where pain and pleasure do not merely coincide but relate to each other symbiotically. It is symbolised by the wedding that takes place on the ship; this wedding modelled on the archetypal village wedding evokes the parting pain of the bride and an immediate parallel is found in the plight of these people who are exiled forever. And yet it is this exile that is also redeeming.

“Talwa jharaile
Kawal kumhaile
Hanse roye
Biraha biyog

The pond is dry
The lotus withered
The swan weeps
For its absent love

In the escalating din, Deeti’s song was almost inaudible at first, but when the other women grew aware of it they joined their voices to hers, one by one, all except Paulette, who held back shyly, until Deeti whispered: It doesn’t matter whether you know the words. Sing anyway – or the night will be unbearable.

Slowly as the women’s voices grew in strength and confidence, the men forgot their quarrels: at home too, during village weddings, it was always the women who sang when the bride was torn from her parent’s embrace – it was as if they were acknowledging, through their silence, that they, as men, had no words to describe the pain of the child who is exiled from home.

Kaise kate ab
Biraha ki ratiya?

How will it pass
This night of parting?” (398)

The moment of carnival is an extended one, or rather becomes extended as it is transformed into a coalition of the suppressed in the face of hierarchies present on the ship. It is the struggle between this coalition and individuals like Hukam Singh who have power on the ship that takes the novel to its end. Of course this struggle actually takes place on the level of individual conflicts, which however also become representative of a larger struggle because of the nature of the said alliance of the oppressed.

Though the locus of this discourse is openness, the logic of the plot takes it, and that is quite inevitable, towards some sort of resolution. The denouement, the final movement on the ship contains as it were, a series of encounters and discoveries, which push the narrative towards a crisis. At this moment the novel reveals itself as a fast moving human drama that it gives indications of becoming throughout. Taking this text to be a novelisation of history seems problematic now, because this final portion does not quite fit in. However as I mentioned earlier it is precisely this concern with individuals (which is after all what novels are about) which takes the novel away from the discourse of historiography and allows history to be the subject of a novel. History here, is not a modern revision of Fate, and becomes something that people make, significantly, not in the way they want to. These characters are not the heroes of history as say Victor Hugo’s might have been, and that is precisely why the Sea of Poppies moves, to repeat what to my mind is important, towards a novelisation of history. “Historic figures” are the products of the discipline of history and are determined, and external determination is opposed to the space that novelisation creates. The coda of Napoleon’s narrative would coincide with that of the historical event he was the hero of. But the ending of Deeti’s or Neel’s narrative would necessarily not fit into the limits of any monologic narrativisation of that period.

The period that Ghosh chooses catches colonialism in a stage where the “tragic onset” has already taken place and it is already to an extent part of the local environment. Deeti’s shrine becomes the storage place where the past, the present and the future, all come together. The gods under attack and the reality that was, bits and pieces of reality that is and the future beyond the seas, which is strangely a return of the reality that was, though as a reduced pastiche of itself – for crossing the kaalapaani implies crossing the boundary beyond which that past cannot truly exist. In the final image of the novel, beneath a lightening lit sky, stand four figures. The Indian “foreigner” Paulette, Baboo Nob Kissin, a man who personifies modernity’s farcical reduction of religion and is also something of an entrepreneur; Deeti, a woman who has made the decision to leave behind a daughter, marry a lower caste man and then to cross the black waters; and, Zachary, a fair skinned son of a black mother – another product of colonialism. A lot of 20th century literature has been written around the descendents of this bunch of people. Ghosh’s characters are quite simply products of a changing reality: whether they are the rubble left after history’s rampage or individuals signifying a new stage of becoming remains ambiguous.

Note: While I have tried to treat this book as complete in itself, the fact that it was introduced to its readers as the first part of a trilogy does not let analysis remain unaffected. As a result even as I try to make certain surefooted assertions, other observations remain like loose ends, which I cannot tie without reading the sequels. For instance, there might be more that needs to be said about the significance of poppy to the work, but I think it depends largely on how the sequels work out.

A Review of “Global Neoliberalism and Education and its Consequences”

Madhu Prasad

Dave Hill and Ravi Kumar (ed), Global Neoliberalism and Education and its Consequences, Routledge, 2008.

This is an important collection of articles which focuses on theoretical issues and policy analyses to bring life and meaning to the facts of the crises facing educational institutions the world over.

Neo-liberalism has resulted in the merchandization of knowledge under conditions that subject its content, structures and modes of accessibilty to the pressures of a global market. The impact on the entire gamut of educational policy and practice has been devastating. As Nick Grant states in the ‘Foreword’ (xv-xvi), the “essentially social and cooperative ethic derived from a natural model of child development, which has informed most educationalists in most countries for centuries, is now challenged by a highly personalized and competitive model of education derived from modern business methodology.” Ravi Kumar and Dave Hill’s ‘Introduction’ outlines the significant social repercussions of this shift from pedagogical to market values. In conditions of increasing socio-economic disparities and loss of opportunities for the disadvantaged sections of society, the state is rapidly retreating from its earlier role as provider and guarantor of ‘welfare’ services, including education, that had ensured the ‘massification’ of skills required by the productive capitalism  of the 20th century until the ’70’s. Cuts in public expenditure have since facilitated dependence on markets and opened up avenues for privatization of the education system. As a consequence, fundamental concepts like equality have been called into question. This remains an abiding concern throughout the many contributions to the volume.

Hill and Kumar (‘Neoliberalism and its Impact’) further demonstrate through an account of the British experience of systemic degeneration induced by neo-liberal pressures, how the ‘philosophical incompatibility’ between the demands of capital and the demands of education is increasingly being resolved byhill-ravi governments on terms that are more and more favourable to capital. In an ideological and economic reproduction of the dominant Thatcherite conception of social development, critical thought has been replaced by an instrumentalist rationality driven by market values. The loss of academic autonomy has led to an undermining of the role and status of the educator, a feature that is becoming characteristic across societies as the World Bank-IMF inspired structural reforms, pressing for withdrawal of the state from education and other services, are imposed on developing countries.

Henry Giroux (‘Neoliberalism, Youth and the Leasing of Higher Education’) identifies the youth as the worst sufferers of this “market ideology… reaching into and commodifying all aspects of social and cultural life.” (p 30). With the state no longer assuming responsibility for a range of ‘social needs’, agencies of government are carrying out policies of deregulation and privatization that are undermining the once “non-commodified public spheres that serve as the repository for critical education, language and public intervention” where democratic values and social relations “are learned and take root”. (p31). Giroux forcefully argues that the “death of the social, the devaluing of political agency, the waning of noncommercial values, and the disappearance of noncommercialised public spaces have to be understood as part of a much broader attack on public entitlements….” (p 46). All social safety nets having collapsed, a neoliberal Hobbesian ethic prevails in which all public concerns are “understood and experienced as utterly private miseries… (and) the losers vastly outnumber the winners.” (p 32)  Since neoliberalism sees youth as a commodity, and young people only as consumers – otherwise they are a ‘social problem’ controllable only by a “rhetoric of fear, control and surveillance” – today’s youngsters represent the broken promise of capitalism in the age of outsourcing, contract work, deindustrialization and deregulation.

The market has no way of dealing with social inequality or civil rights. It has no vocabulary for addressing respect, compassion, ethics, or what it means to recognize antidemocratic forms of power. Giroux advocates struggle for a re-assertion of higher education as a public or social good, for democratic principles of inclusiveness and non-repression provide citizens with the critical tools necessary for investing public life with vibrancy and expanding the base of freedom and justice. As such, faculty resistance against corporatisation would certainly mean struggles for job security and academic freedom, but it must also mean the dynamic of “engaged academics” and “public intellectuals” interacting with student protests for peace, greater freedoms and against exploitation and oppression.

The ‘democratic deficit’ of neoliberal institutions like the WTO and trade regimes like the GATS, is also focused by Pierrick Devidal (‘Trading Away Human Rights?’).  The global regulatory systems of neoliberalism are marked by the conception of a right to education as a utility, whereas the socialist-democratic perspective projects education as a non-utilitarian empowering right. “The normative arguments advanced for the protection of human rights are deontological: they focus on principles about how people are to be treated, regardless of the consequences”. (F.J. Garcia, Protecting the human rights principle in a globalizing economy,2001. Quoted p 92).

Hill, Greaves and Maisuria (‘Education, Inequality and Neo-liberal Capitalism: A Classical Marxist Analysis’) provide an account of the class systemic nature of the increasing inequalities resulting from neoliberal economic conditions and educational strategies. They point to the inherent tendency within the system to segregate the privileged in ‘good’ institutions, while relegating the poor, minorities and other disadvantaged sections to sub-standard multi-track schools without adequate resources or infrastructure. Markets only serve to exacerbate existing inequalities: “the poor have less access to pre-school, secondary and tertiary education; they also attend schools of lower quality where they are socially segregated. Poor parents have fewer resources to support the education of their children, and they have less financial, cultural and social capital to transmit.” (F. Reimers, Unequal schools, unequal chances. The challenges to equal opportunity in the America, 2000. Quoted p 119). Only policies that explicitly address inequality, with a major redistributive purpose, could make education an equalizing force in social opportunity.

Tristan McCowan’s critique (‘Higher Education and the Profit Incentive’) of J. Tooley’s neo-liberal opposition to state intervention in education identifies and elaborates “seven virtues of the profit motive” at the core of Tooley’s approach. Therefore McCowan sees his own argument as a “moral and not simply a pragmatic one… for the ability of states to defend their public education system, and for the notions of equality of opportunity and democratic control on which the systems in principle rest.” (p 55).

The claim that under neoliberalism successful modern economies “will be those that produce the most information and knowledge – and make that information and knowledge easily accessible to the greatest number of individuals and enterprises”, is examined by Nico Hirtt (‘Markets and Education in the Era of Globalized Capitalism’). Is it higher education, he asks, or the scarcity of it, the competition for it, that makes it so profitable for individuals and firms? Isn’t a flourishing economy the condition for boosting higher education and drawing investment into the area? ‘Unleashing the potential’ of those who have been unjustly left behind in a stratified, unequal society does require providing them with the weapon of knowledge and organizational capacity. But is this what our schools provide? And is this what we expect of them? Hirtt exposes the neoliberal claim of promoting a ‘knowledge-economy’. Given the volatility of the economic, industrial and technological environment, knowledge has become “a perishable product”; the important activity in education is not learning but “learning to learn”, that is, the acquisition of an ensemble of knowledge skills that are less institutional and more informal. Such “modular qualifications” (know-how, personal behaviour and development) are essential to be able to adapt to the evolution of, and the upheavals in, the job market.

Edwardo Domenech and Carlos Mora-Ninci (‘World Bank Discourse and Policy on Education and Cultural Diversity for Latin America’) provide a historically contextualized view of World Bank functioning.  Co-opting a range of governmental and nongovernmental organisations, it ensures that their functioning remains complementary to the market, acting to make its functioning better and correcting its flaws.  Together with international agencies and national governments, the Bank “seeks to gather together public officials, academics, designers and beneficiaries of nongovernmental programs, with the aim of revising its strategies and policies in search of new agreements and political support for its economic and social reforms. In this process, the WB procures the involvement of all public, private and nongovernmental agencies that are seen as complimentary to the optimization of the programs to reduce government expenditures. It is also important to note that the relationship between the WB and these international, governmental and nongovernmental organizations is not linear or unilateral… The WB was compelled to modify its discourse during the 1990’s due to heavy criticism and opposition from various social and political entities, especially the so-called new social movements.” Consequently, the “Bank’s discourse has become an odd mixture of decontextualisation, generalization, distortion and omission… as if the WB itself were not one of the key international actors that has engineered the so-called new international order.” (p 156-7).

Propagating the theory of human capital and education as investment, WB relies on an individualist perspective that promotes personal challenge over structural conditions of inequality, making each individual solely responsible for their own successes or failures. However, neoliberal individualism differs from classical liberalism in that it has lost the social component. Compensatory and targeted policies substitute the idea of equality for that of equity, the notion of common interest for particular interest, an ethics of personal gain that sees itself as being in contradiction with, and threatened by, the search for the well-being of society.

Such policies of assistentialism consolidate the segregation and fragmentation of education circuits, neutralizing the pedagogical function rather than complementing it. For example, the marginalization, asdisadvantaged groups, of indigenous communities and diverse minority groups, results in strategies for maximizing enrolment and ensuring retention, but fails to question the ability of the system itself to prove adequate to the pedagogical value and challenge of pluralism. This results in the “deterioration of pedagogical practice at the level of elaboration of pertinent strategies, as well as at the level of representations and expectations that allows generating actual learning in children”. (p 158)  A pedagogy centred on the political critique of identity and difference, exposes the assimilative attempt as reinforcing the actual structures of power and domination by its understanding of socio-cultural diversities as the nonconflictual or unhierarchical coexistence of different communities/ groups. Societies are not homogenous and the specific power structures within their great social variety require to be uncovered.

The final contribution of the volume, Curry Malott’s ‘Education in Cuba: socialism and the encroachment of capitalism’, looks at the Cuban experience to see what can be learned about resisting the contemporary phase of capitalism. Cuba allocates over 10 percent of GDP to education, has one of the finest life-long teacher training programmes in the world, and has achieved universal school enrollment and attendance. Despite the hardship imposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continuing illegal US economic embargo, the quality education the system provides to all “makes it first amongst all countries in the world… (and) we are sharing this immense human capital with our sister nations of the Third World without charging a cent.” (Fidel Castro, 2002). This ‘globalization’ stands out in stark contrast to neoliberalism, but is also subjected to global market pressures. Cuban state capitalism, the basis of its great provider role which still has the support of the majority of the population, is being forced to reprivatise and open sections of its economy to foreign investment to provide employment for the “best-educated and healthiest population in Latin America”. Education is the site of an inherent tension between learning as empowerment, the great egalitarian leveler, and learning as the social reproduction of labor power. While Cuba remains an inspiration as to the magnitude of human progress that can be achieved by resisting neoliberalism, it also serves to emphasize the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of value production under capitalism.

This is also the message and the understanding conveyed by the volume as a whole. Covering a wide range of concerns about the process of education, perhaps the most significant social activity apart from production itself, it is obvious that many issues taken up in this collection are debatable, that statements and arguments can be controversial or better framed, that many theoretical concepts and positions could have been included or explored in greater depth. However, given the stimulating achievements of the volume, these questions are best left to continuing debate and discussion.

Madhu Prasad
 teaches in the Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi.

Those street-fighting years: A Review of Jason Lutes’ “Berlin”

Pothik Ghosh

Jason Lutes, Berlin (Book 1): City of Stones, Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal (2001, Reprinted 2009) &Berlin (Book 2): City of Smoke, Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal (2008) 

Jason Lutes begins at the beginning. The encounter between a man and a woman in a railway carriage with which the first book of his graphic-novel trilogy opens is an archetype. And yet the manner in which it unfolds into the larger narrative of Berlin – the third part of which is yet to appear and which is currently made up of City of Stones and City of Smoke respectively – serves to brush it against its own banal grain. One does not, however, need to get to the middle of Lutes’ yarn about Berlin in the twilight years of the Weimar Republic to figure that such a stock opening has not been forced upon the artist by an imagination overwhelmed and exhausted by the stereotypes of mass culture.

The encounter between key protagonists, journalist Kurt Severing and art student Marthe Mueller, in the compartment of a Berlin-bound train in the September of 1928, is not simply meant to be a first meeting between a man and a woman. It is, more importantly, an encounter set up by Lutes between words (journalist Severing) and images (artist Mueller). An encounter that presages a relationship fraught with both intimacy and conflict. This duality and tension, which marks the consequent entwinement of the protagonists’ lives and loves, do not merely characterise the historical specificity of their times. It is, simultaneously, a conceit that Lutes deploys to stake out his artistic approach, credo even, vis-à-vis the so-called graphic-novel form.

For Lutes then, the comic book, by virtue of being a montage of words and images, has much greater affinity in terms of artistic effect and political purposeBerlin to the audio-visual experience of cinema than the culture of print to which comics have traditionally belonged. For him, not unlike the other contemporary graphic-novel greats such as Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore and Joe Sacco, words and images are not, as they traditionally have been in comics, discrete entities illustrating each other. Rather, they are envisaged as a singular, mutually illuminating complex whose dynamic makes possible ideas and occurrences that become the constituent units of the larger narrative. And Berlin is a perfect exemplar of Lutes’ vision steeped, self-admittedly, in the politics and aesthetics of avant-garde European cinema that has been summed up rather well by Jean-Luc Godard when he distinguished such cinema as a means of expression from television as a means of transmission.

It is precisely this cinematic function of expression that is constitutive of Lutes’ Berlin and is embodied by it as a sort of defining aesthetic for the graphic-novel genre. His engagement, through Marthe Mueller and her co-students of the Berlin Art Academy, with Expressionism, and through it, with western art as a whole, indicates precisely this obsession of his. And while he makes Marthe reject Expressionism, together with all other reigning currents of institutionalised art, it is only to once again bring to fore the clarity of the founding impulse of Expressionism that its frozen form obscures. Berlin is, therefore, clearly a manifesto of artistic freedom and commitment.

The free rein that an artist can give to his/her subjectivity, thanks to Expressionism, or at any rate its founding impulse, enables Lutes to set his gaze free from the constraints of reality as it is given. And that is both the aesthetic medium and political message called Berlin. Lutes’ Berlin, therefore, is not a city-novel in the traditional sense. Neither in its images nor in its words does it illustrate, evoke or invoke the ‘real’ and definitive geography of Berlin of the inter-war years. That, if and when it happens at all, is merely incidental. It does not even seek to transfigure the landscape of the city in a highly eccentric and expressionistic manner akin to the defamiliarising geographies produced by such “city novelists” as Joyce (Dublin), Dos-Passos (New York) or Alfred Doblin (Berlin).

Berlin, for Lutes, is the emotions and ideas of a politics that is constitutive of an epoch called the Weimar Republic, in whose womb gestated the embryo of Hitlerite National Socialism. One could, however, argue that Lutes, considering he is an American in his late thirties who has been to Berlin for all of three days, could do no better than produce such a “research-based” city novel devoid of personal and personalised lived experience. But that Lutes chose to do so of his own free will shows it was a conscious decision that could have come only from the kind of aesthetic and political programme stated above.

Berlin is, therefore, first of all a story about the rise of Nazism, and the unforgivable surrender of a self-serving Weimar political class, mostly made up of dishonest Social Democrats inhabiting their delusive ivory-towers. And it is told, not so much by examining what happened in the top echelons of Weimar polity, but by laying bare what went on in the everyday lives and relationships of people in the historically invisible streets, homes, factories, newspaper offices, trains, schools, restaurants, and nightclubs of the city.

This political epoch called Berlin – which begins a year before the 1929 May Day massacre of German Communist cadre by the Weimar armed forces controlled by a Social Democratic government (City of Stones) and culminating in the National Socialists getting a thumping majority in the Reichstag elections of 1930 (City of Smoke) – is not merely a matter of documentary detailing for Lutes. The how and why of events is, for him, no less important than the what of them. Not surprisingly, the artist in him is not satisfied with merely compelling the reader to confront individual characters and the events they comprise. He constantly gets behind the vanishing point of ‘reality’ in an attempt to show how the incidents and, more importantly the characters, that constitute such reality have been shaped through and by their histories, which are both unique and general.

Cinematic techniques such as flashbacks that transport the reader to the end of World War I and the days after the Treaty of Versailles, especially with regard to the particularities of everyday lives of individuals, are spliced on to panels depicting interactions and relationships among various characters in 1928 to render their seemingly opaque individual psychological responses to each other and the world around historically transparent.

Berlin2Such filmic techniques also come in handy for Lutes to underscore the often contingent nature of decisions that people made while choosing their political side. For instance, the seeds of worker Gudrun Braun’s induction into the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) and her eventual death in the May Day massacre is sown in a serendipitous encounter between her and David, a young Jewish boy, whom she chances upon selling the KPD paper in heavy rain and who gives her a copy of the paper in return for the good turn she does him by lending him her umbrella.

Even the persistent Nazi-Communist conflicts of Weimar Germany – which would eventually give Europe its long fascist night and which began with the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 to which the two parts of the trilogy continually refer – are snatched away from the abstractions of political history to be restored to the flesh-and-blood humanness of everyday contingencies amid which they actually took shape.  Gudrun’s nascent Communist sympathies impel her Jew- and Red-hating husband Otto to throw her out of their house. It is this that not only leads to Gudrun’s complete radicalisation and Otto’s inexorable Nazification but also puts their daughter and son in those two mutually opposed political-ideological camps.  Thus in Lutes’ imagination the Nazi-Communist divide loses its clinical separation to become a much more real and messy phenomenon that leave husband and wife, and brother and sister baying for each other’s blood.

Lutes’ approach towards freedom through commitment, which has made an artistic feat such as Berlin possible, is precisely what he finds was lacking in the intellectuals and artists of Weimar Berlin and which he clearly shows was responsible for the eventual capitulation of German society to Hitler and his murderous thugs.

The inability of German artists such as Marthe and her friends to push beyond the disinterested and pornographic gaze with which they indifferently fix the goings-on, violent or otherwise, among the unwashed masses divided into the National Socialist and Communist camps becomes as much a symptom of their artistic stagnation as the cause behind the rise of the fascist monster. The excitement and fun which Marthe’s friend Anna derives from rooting for David (in City of Stones), whom she watches being chased by a bunch of racist German goons from the window of her flat without knowing or even bothering to know what their respective politics might be is both quite galling and telling. When Marthe asks her, “Why do you think they were chasing him?”, she replies, “Maybe they’re Sozis and he’s a little Nationalist. I was just rooting for him because it was three to one….” Their debates and discussions on art, in such circumstances, come across as a fatal farce.

Comic 2

And Weimar intellectuals captured by Lutes in the figure of Kurt Severing and his journalist-friends, precisely because they are relatively more serious, appear even more disingenuous and pathetic. Severing’s business with words, which are completely alienated from the real experiences and happenings on the Berlin streets, underscores the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of Social Democratic pacifism to which he subscribes. When his old friend Irwin Immenthaler, who has joined the Communists, says (in City of Stones), “Couldn’t stay above the fray any longer. And you? Maintaining hopes of overcoming the opposition with a tide of typing paper?”; Severing replies, “The tide has become more of a trickle lately. But I still value my own judgement over any decrees handed down from Munich or Moscow, if that’s what you mean.”

That Severing’s words – which are as disengaged as his life, and as alienating and irresponsible as his relationships – amount to nothing dawns on him towards the end of City of Smoke. He wonders: “This machine (typewriter) is a kind of devil, feeding my pride by giving my words substance. It promises to order my thoughts, declare their rationality and significance, promises value and weight, meaning hardened by iron and hammered into paper. Even that impact (tak!) is a promise: that my words will strike like a fist. It lies. I would throw it out of the window if I could lift the fucking thing. How much time do I have left in this life? How much – How much of it have I wasted?” And the soliloquy ends with him emptying all his typewritten manuscripts into a bonfire lit by a couple of poor souls just outside his apartment.

comic 3

In Lutes’ Berlin, ideological objectivity is a sickening alibi for intellectual indifference and political timidity. The alternative lifestyle of artists and intellectuals, particularly in matters of sexuality, fails to rise above hedonism and self-conscious display of modishness to emerge as an effective force of dissidence and anti-Nazi resistance. Such lifestyle, its radical deviance notwithstanding, is thereby left open to the predatory thought police of a Nazi future that is imminent.

Comic 1

The side Lutes is on, as far as Weimar Berlin is concerned, could not have been more apparent – Luxemburg and Libeknecht are, clearly, his heroes. He shows how the Nazi way was paved by those “above-the-fray” Social Democrats, who not only refused to strengthen the militant anti-Nazi struggle of the Communists but often worked to detract from it. And yet the Communists too draw a sharp rap on their knuckles from him. Berlin insinuates, not at all incorrectly, that for German Communists, notwithstanding their commitment and spirit of sacrifice, many modes of anti-conservative critique and anti-fascist dissent engendered by certain specific experiences, practices and ways of life of some democratic sections of Weimar society remained below the radar. Not surprisingly, Communist politics, in spite of its radical anti-Nazi tenor, remained for most such people a predetermined and alien phenomenon they avoided like plague.

Lutes seeks to make amends on that score by attempting to enrich the Communist historical account of its glorious anti-Nazi resistance by including, through an act of creative imagination, the challenges posed to the reactionary ethos of Nazism by such phenomena as clubs and gatherings of lesbians and bisexuals. He even counterposes an internationalism of real experience, manifest in the fleeting relationship between an African-American Jazz artiste and a German stripper, to the noble, though doctrinally stringent, internationalism of the card-holding Communists.

What, however, renders Lutes’ vision most interesting and pertinent is its universality that stretches beyond the confines of time and space within which he situates his parable. The persistent advance of revanchist political forces the world over, and especially in south Asia, thanks to the aid or moral justification being extended to them by effete and self-serving politics of a liberal vintage proves that Lutes’ tale is, without doubt, a cautionary parable for all times.

A Review of “Biology Under the Influence”

Debkumar Mitra 

Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, Monthly Review Press, New York/Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2009, Price: Rs 395

At the beginning of the last century, despite the advent of Darwin, practice of science became a tool of exploitation in the capitalist world. The very idea of science as an enterprise in search of the ‘ultimate, unadulterated truth’ gave it an Ur human status and capitalism recognised its power in the early days of Industrial Revolution in England. Science through its mirror technology attained the status of the saviour of human race and powered its way through the entire gamut of liberal education and got institutionalised as an academy of truth. This was too juicy an offer for capitalism in its nascent stage to ignore. And without effective resistance or little intervention it became one of the most powerful sources of exploitation. Everyone was still doing science but its fruits were enjoyed by Manchester cotton barons.

Though academics realised this slow appropriation of their discipline as a potent tool for exploitation much later, it took them little time to resist in the form oflewontin biology a search for an alternative definition of science. Marxist intervention in science started with Marx himself but it got diluted, at least in the public eye, with pamphleteer communists, especially of the Soviet kind, hawking Marxism as ‘scientific truth.’ Soon, Soviet programmes tried to establish the supremacy of ‘socialist science’ over ‘capitalist, essentially American, science’.

All along its 80-odd years of existence this new animal called ‘socialist science’ was nothing but a science-for-all programme. Not surprisingly, many of these programmes were in the area of biological sciences — genetics, health, agriculture and evolution. What got obfuscated was that science is essentially a human enterprise and whatever truth science discovers is not beyond us. To ignore the social underpinning and dialectics therein and posit scientific truth as sublime is, in a loose sense, creation of a new religion. This is often cited by fundamentalist reactionary forces as science stepping on the toes of religion, in both institutional and non-institutional sense. In fact, the invention of science-versus-religion idea is based on this misplaced notion that science is a new religious order. As Stephen Jay Gould had said,

“The text of Humani Generis focuses on the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Church—a word derived not from any concept of majesty or awe but from the different notion of teaching, for magister is Latin for ‘teacher’. We may, I think, adopt this word and concept to express the central point of this essay and the principled resolution of supposed “conflict” or ‘warfare’ between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimatemagisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA or ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’).” (The emphases are mine)

An all-pervading genetic determinism, which one suspects is an extension of the ‘pristine truth above all,’ that dominates biological sciences these days, has further deepened the fault lines between religion and science. A determinist approach to biology needs revision. Gould, Leowntin, Levins and others have been fighting an intellectual battle over it for decades. The determinism programme got a boost, especially in molecular biology and later molecular genetics, with the publication of Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? in the 1940s. With discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, Schrödinger’s idea got further impetus and the current thought is that life is determined by genes. Of course, remarkable progress has been made in genetics but it is hard to believe that nurture has no role to play here. Despite acrimonious debates over the issue, the scientific community at large has successfully banished all protests to the fringes of scientific thought. Lewontin and Gould belong to this miniscule structure of resistance.

During the 50th year celebration of the publication of Schrödinger’s work, Gould gave a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin where he pointed the success of determinism in biology.

“I do not desire to denigrate this timely celebration by denying in any way the importance of What is Life?, but I do wish to suggest that Schrödinger’s key claim for an almost self-evident universality in his approach to biology is both logically overextended, and socially conditioned as a product of his age. Furthermore, these features of limitation may help us understand why a large subcommunity of biologists, including my own confreres in palaeontology and evolutionary studies, have been less influenced and impressed by Schrödinger’s arguments, and remain persuaded that the answer to ‘what is life?’ requires attention to more things on earth than are dreamed of in Schrödinger’s philosophy.”

That scientific method is ‘socially conditioned’ may escape the untrained eye, but to Lewontin and Levins these are apparent. However, their radical interventions have been grounded in the success stories of genetically modified crops, discovery of some disease-causing genes and cloning. The mathematical approach to biology has further compounded the woes. The universality of mathematical truth reinforced the idea of determinism further. Mathematical models of biological systems have been touted as ‘theoretical evidence’ for an elusive ‘theoretical biology’. Lewontin and his ilk face attacks from many flanks, postmodernists, sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, drug companies, creationists to name a few. With Marxists already under attack, radical scientists face insurmountable odds in getting their views across to people. Some of them, especially Lewontin and Gould, more so the former, have been waging a lone battle against this multi-pronged attack and have been successful in making the neo-Marxist (neo in the sense of new and as the term usually understood) approach to biological thought a part of the main table debate.

This is a significant book of essays not because of its imaginative use of Marxian thought in assessing science, more precisely science practise, and its impact; but also because it helps contextualise the post- Industrial Revolution Western knowledge system practises and their practitioners within the paradigm of Marxian thought. Thankfully, the ‘ism’ of Karl Marx is not assumed as a dogma but eloquently argued making it a pleasurable read. However, the essays of Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins provoke more questions about forces in play, in particular dialectics, in the multi-billion dollar enterprise called biological sciences. One doubts if it is at all possible to have a Marxist critique of Biology but one cannot agree more with them on the counts of an assessment of human impact of biological sciences through its practice and a need to create a debate over methods and tools that are being used to create such an impact.

This book is not meant for even those who have a stomach for Marxist critique. Quite a few of the thirty-one essays are all for specialists. If the word ‘dialectics’ attracts you to anything, approach this one with caution.

A Review of “Waiting for Renée”

Paresh Chandra

Paramita Ghosh, Waiting for RenéeWriters Workshop, Kolkata, 2008, ISBN:978-81-8157-770-2, pp. 70, Price (HB) Rs 150. Contact: renee.miss@gmail.comTwo usual questions asked about a piece of writing: 1) Is it fun? (This often translates into: does it take effort? If it does then it is not fun.) and 2) Does it give a good representation of reality? As a critic, I can afford to snobbishly disregard the first and the second I will try to rescue since it is after all, a result of years of reading of books that ‘reflect life’ and is closer to the canon. In fact there is still nothing wrong with demanding a piece of writing to be a ‘representation of reality’, if we only complicate our understanding of the phrase. ‘Representation of reality’ does not imply verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is one avatar that this phrase took and its age to my mind seems gone. If truth be told some of my favourite writers never tried to achieve this effect in their writing. Descriptions became outdated since Dostoyevsky (even though naturalism had just emerged). If you are looking for easy fun, find another book. Reality is there, not much verisimilitude.

The introduction that the writer wrote for this collection suggests that “The Story of Renée” captures the tussle between a Reneewoman and a man about the telling of stories and ‘construction of narratives’.  Maybe she wants the reader to believe that. In a sense it is true, but I don’t know if she has done the story much good by writing that. It is not just that. Yes, there is the woman and there is the man, and the woman seems imaginative and (pardon me for using such passé terms) spontaneous and the man is all about the facts and there is tussle. Some may find it strange that the names that come up in the tussle are all French – Sartre, Simone, Napoleon (Renée?) – even though as the author points out in the introduction it is about India. Keeping in mind all the hullabaloo surrounding the discourse of ‘Indian Writing in English’, the author seems to be living on a knife’s edge, using such references and yet trying, it appears to pay her way out of strife, bribing her Indian readers with that introduction of hers.

Remember Freud’s dream book? Remember what he said about dream content and latent thought? What you think you see is not the real thing, though you see the real thing as well. The tussle is what you think you see, but it is not the real thing. The real thing is something else, which you also see. To me it seems the more important idea is the seemingly marginalized (repressed?) one. In a subtle way, does the story suggest that Sartre and Simone are Indian? If feminism can be Indian, and if an Indian woman can write about a tussle between a woman and a man, then aren’t they Indian? Is the only way of writing available to the Indian writer (writing in English) one that ignores these experiences that are definitive of her/his aesthetics and reality in favour of descriptions of some ‘Indian reality’ that would get her/him the Booker Prize? Maybe not, says the story. ‘You tell me’, also says the story. The woman in the story, who ‘sang a French chanson’ dreams of writing a European story and the Indian reader might laugh at her inauthenticity but the story has already been written and the reader without knowing has been roped in, into the bargain.

The story tries to negotiate the situation of the Indian writer writing in English, the guilt of being privileged and writing for the privileged, and the anxiety of representing also the one who is not privileged. As ‘post-colonial’ subjects, we like to think of ourselves as special. But in point of fact this problem is universal, in this case more pronounced maybe. The experience of art in a class society is inevitably one of leisure and class privilege. To somehow negotiate this anxiety, this ‘guilt of art’ is the attempt of every artist. The most that a piece of art can do is accept this guilt and bring it out in its relation with the social. If it doesn’t do that the repressed will return in uncomfortable ways and if it does that, the situation remains uncomfortable all the same.

The ‘presenting a slice of life’ approach does not seem to be working for many of these writers; the pressure of negotiating a landscape of which they aren’t a part, always proves overpowering and instead of ‘breaking the landscape’, they often end up ‘exoticising’ it, or reducing it to stereotypes (the two are pretty much the same thing). Ghosh, it appears, tries to do something different. Something, possibly not completely original, but then imitation in art as Vargas Llosa says somewhere, is not a moral but an artistic problem and Ghosh seems enough of an artist to personalize this ‘plagiarism’. In ‘The Kites’ for instance, she is able to handle the antinomy of social discontent pretty well through the boy who wants to destroy the houses so that he can make a long board to iron more clothes only to realize that with the houses gone there would be no more clothes to iron. Some snapshots in this story might actually be a part of her lived experience, for instances that of presswallas having to hurry up and down the stairs to collect clothes in ones and twos. The story is indeed an urban one and is able to encompass nicely the experience of the writer as well as the characters. But she wisely decides not to offer a last word, or at least not an easy one. The enigmatic last paragraph is where the answer to whatever question the reader might ask lies, but it has to be found; it does not give itself up as Adiga’s false ones do.

Ghosh remoulds and brings to life seemingly dated motifs by adding strange perspectives. One cannot be sure if the woman in red is sad or if it’s right to think that she’s. The imaginary stenographer takes her notes, deferring judgement. To express the strangeness of everyday situations, words themselves become strange in their relation to each other. In an uneasy situation of a domestic battle, time becomes ‘uncertain’.  Short sentences become narratives and the longer ones mere frames.

‘The time is uncertain. The lamp posts are so tall that this evening who knows if a bulb or a star will hang itself.’ (23)

Everydayness slips into the metaphysical through the word ‘uncertain’. Drab reality lit by strange but smooth writing presents a similar chiasmatic structure, possible only in the in-between state where matter and anti-matter coexist and nothing is quite final—there is a promise of stability but the promise exists because it was not kept.  In openly choosing typical urban images, the text seems to accept that it has come late in the day, but this acceptance does not imply that it has nothing to add. Difference in form is often a sign of fundamental change, though I wouldn’t throw in all my money yet; I would wait and watch.

The feeling of being in limbo that she preserves, well most of the time, does fade a little on occasions when I think she becomes uncharacteristically eager to cut the Gordian knot. ‘A writer trying to find words’ has been done before, but that has been the fate of most things. And each writer finds words differently and each could be put into a story. In any case, till a point the story seemed to be going in one direction and then it changed route. Maybe the author chose a male persona to distance herself or to give an appearance of distance, but another likely reason seems to be good old verisimilitude—maybe somewhere in the back of her mind, Ghosh thought it would be more believable if a guy gets the call to revolution. I say that because I find this part of the story somewhat bewildering and I can’t imagine why this episode, if it had to be there, had to be there in this fashion unless she wants to give us a taste of ‘bitter’ reality. The revolutionary as a windbag with a beard is a stock image now and in such circumstances when faced with the unsure, dreamy artist seems more of an ass. It seems that this one time in her desire to present the sad face of reality, she gives in to the old way and instead of giving us a type gives us a stereotype. Her style in this part loses its characteristic ease and allows out of place sarcasm to creep in. (‘While my friend fills in the picture, I learn that I am a hidden radical.’) The change in style makes me unsure of whether I should give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that these feelings are not recommended or valued, though if her intention in choosing a male character was distance, this is possible as well.

The thing about anticipation is that it allows you to keep one foot into what you are waiting for without allowing the complacency of ownership. It keeps you on your toes and never allows you to become comfortable. It tells you that it is not the perfect world. You should not become complacent because there is unhappiness, inequality, injustice (class?). You are insignificant and you cannot afford to become complacent. You can change things but you haven’t yet. You can create meaning but you haven’t yet. You think you can do these things but you can’t be sure. A work that does not preserve or recreate this uncertainty has no siblings in the realm of philosophy and is by extension not art. At the very least, Waiting for Renée tries to be art.

I think the volume is pretty. The binding could be better though. ‘A Credo by P. Lal’, on the last page in spite of the wry tone makes me feel good about possessing a ‘limited edition’ object.

Review Symposium: “Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire” (3)

Samuel Fassbinder 

Bringing Resistance to Education

The field of “education” can be said to be about “teaching”; but this is to offer a mere functional definition without exploring what education is about. The sociologists of education tell us that education, in the sense of the modern educational university, is about “consumer choice.” To say it thusly, however, is to pose the student as a consumer. Clark Kerr constructs college students as consumers in his classic The Uses of the University (31-32); it becomes important, then, to ask about the educational processes by which students become consumers. Such an investigation would not limit itself to discussions of schooling; Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy is importantly about how advertising pressures create “commercialized children”; little consumers. The most important thing about schooling and learning, today, is their integration into capitalism; capitalist schooling.

David F. Labaree’s study of teacher education, The Trouble with Ed Schools, situates education departments at the bottom of the university hierarchy, and suggests that “education” is the least respected academic field because it is the most subject to market forces. “Much of the scorn that has been directed at teacher education over the years can be traced to the simple fact that it has earnestly sought to provide all of the teachers that were asked of it.” (25) Teacher education gets down and dirty with the working classes in the schools, and is deprived of academic status for it.

Now, teacher education traditionally limits itself to the production of teachers; the field of teacher education, then, is the standard, “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic'” public school curriculum. Its main subject of inquiry is how to present it in the standard public school classroom. This has been narrowed to the point at which, under the No Child Left Behind Act, many of the nation’s public schools have become mere test-prep institutions. We get a variant of commodity fetishism: test scores for test scores’ sake.

But there is nevertheless a creative side to the education department in the university. The academic end of the education department presents an alternative, sometimes idealized, to the constricted classroom reality often seen in schools. This is what Labaree calls “progressive education.” Progressive education is education as it should be, education as an appeal to the learning experiences of the children themselves. But, as Labaree describes it in The Trouble with Ed Schools, progressive education is tied to departments of education in the form of a marriage of losers:

“Both were losers in their respective arenas: child-centered progressivism lost out in the struggle for control of American schools, and the education school lost out in the struggle for respect in American higher education. They needed each other; with one looking for a safe haven and the other looking for a righteous mission”. (Labaree 143)

Labaree’s social lens allows us to focus clearly upon the “righteous mission” of McLaren and Jaramillo, two education department professors who bring the mission of education into the terrain of humanist marxism, in hopes of citing a war of position, defined as “the exercise of resistance in the sphere of civil society by popular classes who are able to avoid co-optation and mediation by the nation state” (McLaren and Jaramillo 113). Their immediate goal is to provoke a discussion about the ultimate purposes of educational institutions; their eventual goal is bringing world society into a new mode of social being.

The bulk of content in the introduction and four essays that make up Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire constitute a rallying call to that war of position. The introduction situates the disaster post-hurricane Katrina in New Orleans amidst “the current ecological crisis and crisis of capitalism brought on by fossil-fuel shortage” (18) and of the racism of the official response to said disaster. Chapter 1 contains a wide-ranging analysis of the capitalist system amidst the Bush administration’s “ideological lockdown in an attempt to return to the halcyon days of the McKinley era when the fat cats of industry ran a retrograde financial kingdom that enshrined private property rights and supported the annexation of foreign territories (Greider 2003)”. (McLaren and Jaramillo 2007).

The final portion of Chapter 1 does, indeed, contain a subdivision titled “The Politics of Organization,” (38-49) in which the path to socialism is sketched out in helpful detail.  The substance of this portion is deserving of extended mention. The authors deal with criticisms of socialist organization as too centralized, too undemocratic, too disconnected from working class struggle. Their argument proceeds quickly to examples of group struggle in Latin America: the “asambleas” of Argentina, the Zapatistas of Mexico, the “Bolivarian circles” of Venezuela. They advocate the attainment of state power for the sake of its transformation; the bourgeois state won’t save us, but a transformed state might help. The rest of Chapter 1 helpfully speculates upon the ideological ground which must be gained if a “civil societarian left” is to be resuscitated in the United States. McLaren and Jaramillo advocate the reworking of the notion of “citizenship” according to a model proposed by Takis Fotopoulos under the aegis of “deep democracy.” Bourgeois democracy is, of course, the right to elect the capitalist of your choice; real economic democracy involves popular control over economic decisions.

McLaren’s media analysis, though, fills a large portion of both intro and chapter 1. It leaves us in no doubt that the Right knows about the idea of the “war of position,” and is in fact fighting such a war right now. (After all, dear readers, Rush Limbaugh cited Gramsci in See, I Told You So; what are the rest of us waiting for?)

The educational content of the first part of Pedagogy and Praxis is plain and apparent, too: this is the real education we are getting from the American mass media, and it should scare us into action:

“Employing a politics that counts on the stupefaction of a media-primed electorate, the Bush administration has marshaled the corporate media in the service of its foreign policy such that the environment is literally suffused with its neoliberal agenda, with very little space devoid of its ideological cheerleading”.(33)

If you’re a teacher, don’t imagine you can just shut your door and teach, either – they want your classroom space, too:

“Where classrooms once served as at least potentially one of the few spaces of respite from the ravages of the dominant ideology, they have now been colonized by the corporate logic of privatization and the imperial ideology of the militarized state… Consider the case of Bill Nevins, a high school teacher in New Mexico who faced an impromptu paid leave of absence following a student’s reading of “Revolution X,” a poem that lends a critical eye toward the war in Iraq”.(33)

So the authors care about the mess that public schooling has become, too: Chapter 2 brings the reader into a social analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act, depicted here as another tool of the corporations and the Right to disempower the poor and, in general, the working class. Solutions are named: “we realize that capitalism is not something that can be fixed, or humanized, because its ‘value form’ is premised on the exploitation of human labor.”(82) An alternative pedagogy is embraced, too: “needed is a language of analysis that will enable teachers, students, and families to unpack the real objectives of the Bush regime’s educational initiatives in light of its adherence to policies and neoliberal imperialist practices as the foundation of its dominant optic.”(85)

Chapter 3, “Critical Pedagogy, Latino/a Education, and the Politics of Class Struggle,” brings us on tour with authors McLaren and Jaramillo, in Cuba with Che’s daughter, in Venezuela with President Chavez and with the beneficiaries of his educational initiatives, and with various resistance movements throughout Latin America and the world and, indeed, with populations in the US. It’s an exciting tour: pictures from it are scattered throughout the book between the chapters. The authors spread a message of unity through diversity, and oblige the reader to recognize the various real resistances to right-wing hegemony that such an educational strategy can provoke.

The Two Removes: Educational Literature and Student Experience

At the beginning of this review, when I looked through Labaree’s sociological lens upon education departments, I could see that they stood at two removes from student learning (as they themselves define it, according to the reigning criteria of progressive education).  These removes are, to be sure, institutional removes: the professors, the teachers, and the students all see schooling with different institutional eyes. The first remove is of education departments from actual schoolteachers, who work in the classroom every day for half the calendar year; the second remove is that of the schoolteachers themselves from the student lifeworld itself, seen phenomenologically as “student experience,” or in terms of the placement of such students in environments in which cultural politics and political economies are expressed. We would do well to evaluate texts written in the “field of education” for their attempts to apprehend the institutional removes which separate academic thought from student experience.

The distance of this first remove, wide and growing wider in light of the Bush administration’s educational policies, has been dramatized in polemics such as Meyer and Wood’s edited (2004) volume Many Children Left Behind. The Bush regime has brought America’s schools to heel in imposing testing mandates upon all: schools must make “Adequate Yearly Progress” in test scores, or face sanctions. The six well-established progressive authors who write in Meyer and Wood’s volume all have solid academic reasons for criticizing the banality of NCLB: its failure to use varied means of measurement in determining school quality, its over-reliance upon standardized tests, its denial of local authority over schooling. Pedagogy and Praxis is ahead of the game as it is played by the progressives: having already shown in Chapter One how progressive educators have criticized standardized testing for “reducing knowledge for its numerically determinable value,” (34) and for all of the other symptoms shown by an educational system wedded to the status quo, McLaren and Jaramillo dig at NCLB in Chapter 2 as an attempt to privatize education and as a sop to four major testing corporations (Harcourt, McGraw Hill, Riverside, and Pearson) (79). The authors’ perspective, established from the outset, is that “it is the continuation of capitalism that is the underlying issue” (85) rather than any of the symptoms cited by progressive authors.

Now, NCLB was indeed a product of bipartisan Congressional consensus; its passage was a logical extension of the Goals 2000 program under Clinton and the America 2000 program under Bush padre. It establishes the “official knowledge” that according to Stephen Arons (Short Route to Chaos) “contradicts the entire idea of constitutional democracy.” (Arons 86) However, McLaren and Jaramillo don’t make a complete case for the notion that NCLB (and beyond it, the Bush administration), is a normal course of elite action within the capitalist system as a whole. Was the invasion of the public schools (and, for that matter, of Afghanistan and Iraq) really all that much a consequence of elite consensus around “empire” (85) as the authors claim? (Or, more nagging to liberal sensibilities, would a President Gore have acted differently?) Perhaps a future book would design pedagogy to expose the financial secrets behind the relentless hunger for profit gnawing at world society’s neoliberal economic elites. Starting with interpretations of movies such as “Wall Street,” and drawing upon books such as Harry Shutt’s The Trouble with Capitalism, Levy and Dumenil’s Capital Resurgent, Kees van der Pijl’s Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq, and Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence. It would expose a world in which vast surpluses of capital must lean on government and drink the working class dry while the actual global economic growth rate declines. To their credit, the authors show great proficiency in the “follow the money” type of analysis which would constitute such pedagogy.

The second remove, between teachers and student learning, is covered in this book by the concept of “critical pedagogy.” Pedagogy and Praxis builds upon a background already explicated in detail by Paulo Freire, whose concept of “conscientization” (34) motivates the political discussion therein. Readers who need to understand why revolutionary critical pedagogy centers upon the students, rather than the curriculum, should consult the writings of Paulo Freire as an assumed prologue to the sort of pedagogic writing offered inPedagogy and Praxis.

Pedagogy and Praxis, then, is intended to cut through the removes separating the education faculties in their ivory towers from the students in their scholastic settings, by appealing to them to join the struggle for a better future:

“Critical pedagogy, as we envision it, avoids the bad infinity of mainstream pedagogy in which truth and justice are sought outside of living history in the precincts of a mystical otherness. In contrast, we underscore our conviction that the subjunctive world of the “ought to be” must be wrought within the imperfect, partial, defective, and finite world of the “what is” by the dialectical act of absolute negation. It is the search and struggle for a utopia in which the future is inherent in the material forces of the present”. (116)

Now, can the real-life teachers of America follow such advice? Or are they constrained to seek the mere goals of “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the watchful eyes of principals alert for dissidence? The answer to such questions lies in the political realities of each moment: a movement to overturn NCLB and to get off of the capitalist path (perhaps based on some of the living examples offered in Chapter 1) would allow the answer to the first question to shift from “no” to “yes.”

At any rate, it is through apprehensions of the difficulties of the present moment, and outlines of the road ahead, the authors arrive at the sort of utopian teaching suggested under the banner of “revolutionary critical pedagogy.” So, through the collective building of an “ought to be,” the institutional removes are themselves to be removed, and the various social forces are brought to bear upon the search and the struggle for a utopia in opposition to the false promises of capitalism.

Coda and Conclusion

Chapter 4, “God’s Cowboy Warrior,” asks us to recognize the ideological stakes of the hegemonic Bush administration in the US. “The only way Bush can pull off his image as the great American protector of the white male is if military spending becomes his major priority.” (170) Chapter 4 reads as a long coda, further developing insights mentioned in previous chapters of the book. In reading the book’s last eighty-three pages, we are led back to the serious study of power, clearly the work to be done for those living within its machineries. The Bush administration is said to combine the religious fervor of Christian fundamentalism and the financial power of neoliberalism with various white male dominator fantasies, with a few old, repackaged Nazi strategies (e.g. torture, “shock and awe”) thrown in for good measure.

At about p. 172, forty-nine pages in, the discussion reaches up a metalevel to a critique of capitalism, in which “capital performs itself through our laboring and toiling bodies.” (172) Such an insight brings much of the prior discussion of power into sharp focus, and it deserves emphasis here in this book review. It also brings Chapter 4 to the threshold of a discussion of “capitalist discipline,” so meaningfully foregrounded in Kees van der Pijl’s Transnational Classes and International Relations, in which the capitalist system is seen as an expanding disciplinary framework. This insight, moreover, further detaches the authors’ arguments from the general line of anti-Bush diatribe, which may stand for worthy ideals without connecting Bush himself with the daily operation of the capitalist system.

The end of chapter 4 engages us with the philosophy of Peter Hudis (199-200) requiring a leap into abstraction that not all readers may be able to join the authors in making. Readers will nevertheless gain a summary understanding of revolutionary critical pedagogy as a departure from existing realities.

In conclusion, Pedagogy and Praxis can be read as a major attempt to add to the struggle of a “war of position” on all levels, and is a worthy contribution to such a struggle.  Pedagogy and Praxis can also be viewed as an attempt to incite discussion, radical discussion, in the context of educational departments in universities. Such departments can be said to be handicapped by the fragmentation of university business, and separated from student learning processes by the two removes I mentioned above. To be sure,Pedagogy and Praxis does show that there are audiences in politically “ready” areas of the world (Venezuela, Mexico) which are open to revolutionary critical pedagogy. Such an audience, we might imagine, would also benefit from a different, more advanced pedagogic discussion, one more closely observing teachers and their activities. However, it seems as if they have benefited from a social climate which allows radical educators to thrive; whereas if one lives in the United States, a terrain of relatively little resistance to capitalism, ideological challenges to the “revolutionary critical pedagogy” position may prove to be insuperable for many who wish to teach in the public schools. It is that non-activist part of the world, then, which especially needs to read and re-read the essays in which the case for revolutionary critical pedagogy is inserted into a setting of present-day current events. Said events are, indeed, the cannon-fodder of the “war of position.”


Arons, Stephen. Short Route to Chaos. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.

Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. 5th ed. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 2001.

Labaree, David F. The Trouble with Ed Schools. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004.

McLaren, Peter, and Nathalia Jaramillo. Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2007.

Meyer, Deborah, and George Wood, eds. Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and Our Schools. Boston: Beacon P, 2004.

Van der Pijl, Kees. Transnational Classes and International Relations. London: Routledge, 1998.

Review Symposium: “Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire” (2)

A Philosophy of Praxis: Revolutionary Critical Pedagogy and Hope 

Bryant Griffith
Kim Skinner 

There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope….What kind of educator would I be if I did not feel moved by the powerful impulse to seek, without lying, convincing arguments in defense of the dreams for which I struggle, in defense of the “why” of the hope with which I act as an educator? – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope

Questioning, compelling, and original, the emotional and intellectual impact of Peter McLaren and Nathalia Jaramillo’s latest endeavor is both disorienting and powerful. Composed by two vocal leaders in the field of critical pedagogy, Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism (2007) furthers attempts to make the pedagogical more politically informed. The authors’ deep personal engagement with the discourse of critical pedagogy creates a work that addresses the ever-shifting realities of the field and schooling itself, both in the United States and a global context. In their photographically documented visits with radical teachers and scholars in North America, Latin America, and other parts of the world, the globetrotting authors have illuminated for the reader in this volume how capitalism, education, and technology go hand-in-hand.

The collection of essays and the accompanying authors’ photo travelogue make visible the vital struggle for critical educators today in the face of neoliberal globalization. While not opposed to globalization per se, what the authors find problematic is the globalization of capitalism. McLaren and Jaramillo suggest that while critical educators continue to attack standardized testing, pedagogical authoritarianism, rote learning, and the muting of student voices, they have not overwhelmingly challenged the formal structure of the capitalist system, combating the privatization and businessification of schooling. While critical educators “have celebrated diversity and creativity and fought against racial segregation and racism, sexism and homophobia” (p. 34), they have not contested the transformation of the social relations of production as a step towards social justice.

The revolutionary critical pedagogy of McLaren and Jaramillo seeks to encourage and provoke questioning, to elucidate what is problematic with existing social injustices. According to McLaren and Jaramillo, “The actions of human beings are what shape history. Both Freire and Dunayevskaya stress here that the educator must be educated. The idea that a future society comes into being as a negation of the existing one finds its strongest expression in class struggle. Here, we note that dialectical movement is a characteristic not only of thought but also of life and history itself. And here the outcomes are never guaranteed” (p. 108). The task of contemporary critical educators is to work with students to build revolutionary consciousness, never abandoning a vision for the radical transformation of society. “For critical revolutionary educators, the struggle for inclusive democracy stipulates working with students to build revolutionary consciousness and collective action,” a challenge which can be produced most effectively within the framework “of an intergenerational, multiracial, gender-balanced, transnational and anti-imperialist social movement. This will not be an easy task, especially at this current moment of political despair that has infected much of the educational left. It will require radical hope” (p. 54).

Hope, one of the most fundamental of McLaren and Jaramillo’s themes, is a theme that resounds with those in the trenches trying to make a difference and embodies the aspirations of those seeking a transformative education for their students. McLaren has always believed educators must value the knowledge acquired in the field, but must be wary not to engage in the “mythification of popular knowledge, its superexaltation” (Freire, 1994, p. 84). McLaren and Jaramillo embrace the hope and dreams espoused by Freire, believing like Freire that dreaming is “a necessary political act, it is an integral part of the historico-social manner of being a person…part of human nature, which, within history, is in permanent process of becoming” – we need to remember that “there is no dream without hope” (pp. 90-91). The authors’ return to hope paints a colorful picture of what is and isn’t problematical, thus giving the reader a sense that all is not lost.

“Hope is the freeing of possibility, with possibility serving as the dialectical partner of necessity. When hope is strong enough, it can bend the future backward towards the past, where, trapped between the two, the present can escape its orbit of inevitability and break the force of history’s hubris, so that what is struggled for no longer remains an inert idea frozen in the hinterland of ‘what is,’ but becomes a reality carved out of ‘what could be.’ Hope is the oxygen of dreams, and provides the stamina for revolutionary struggle”. (p. 55)

McLaren (2007b) continues his adherence to hope as he observes critical educators today in the process of crafting their own dreams of a global community that is bending towards social and economic justice. Their dreams are “reflected in the mirror of Freire’s pedagogical dream, one that is inspired by a hope born of political struggle,” grounded in the faith of “the ability of the oppressed to transform the world from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be,’ to reimagine, re-enchant, and recreate the world rather than adapt to it” (p. 302).

Echoing Henry Giroux’s persistent call for teachers to be at the forefront of promoting conversations and actions which address social and political issues, McLaren and Jaramillo focus in this book on the need for critical educators to embrace and include teachers, parents, and students. The authors believe communities and schools must promote grassroots movements in education, as an expression of their commitment to a more just society. Grassroots constituencies have the ability to contest curriculum and policies, to enter debates, and make decisions collectively. Needed around the globe, grassroots education movements are fundamental to bringing everyone back into the education equation. Critical educators, according to McLaren (2007b), “cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch this debate over the future of education as passive spectators. We need to take direct action, creating the conditions for students to become critical agents in social transformation” (p. 310).

In the United States, our classroom environments are controlled by government funding, curriculum standards, testing mandates, and a neoliberal agenda. Our classrooms have been colonized, according to McLaren and Jaramillo, and our classrooms that once “served as at least potentially one of the few spaces of respite from the ravages of the dominant ideology, have now been colonized….Teachers are left suspended across the ideological divide that separates reason and irrationality, consciousness and indoctrination” (p. 33). Teachers are encouraged to avoid “politics” in the classroom by administrators and government officials; bringing politics into the classroom is considered unpatriotic.

But while teachers are encouraged to keep all that is political out of the classroom, the inverse is not happening. With the passing of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Act in 2001, standards-based education reform (formerly outcome-based education) was enacted across the nation. This reform movement is based on the belief that all students will succeed if goals are set and students are held to high expectations based solely on performance on criterion-based assessments. NCLB reduces student learning and effective instruction because teachers are coerced “to teach to the test.” NCLB, under the guise of championing the poor and underprivileged, has requirements for schools that are federally funded (i.e., Title I) that vary from the guidelines for other public schools not receiving federal funds. Education has become a commodity, and the narrow guidelines of the NCLB Act for what counts as “scientifically based research” affects and limits literacy initiatives, what traditions of research which will be funded, and what language arts programs can be used in federally funded schools. McLaren and Jaramillo depict the NCLB Act of 2001 as “a historical apparatus that serves to exert control over the largest and most vulnerable segments of the population in the interest of promoting capitalist consumption and the reproduction of the law of value and the value form of labor” (p. 65). The winners of this legislation are the testing industry; the losers are the poor, whose federally funded school curriculum is now even further removed from their lived experiences.

So what can be done? McLaren and Jaramillo assert that critical educators and critical citizens must heed a call for action. They challenge the official social imaginary of the NCLB act and contend:

“We need more than pamphleteers and protesters to bring about another social order. We need critical citizens capable of and willing to exercise their agency on behalf of a world without capitalist exploitation. A central challenge for critical educators today is to reject the dematerialized understanding of the sociohistorical ground upon which the Bush regime rests its case for the NCLB….Teachers need to reject their role as amanuenses of history, as clerks of testing regimes, as custodians of empire, and assume a role of active shapers of the historical present”. (p. 85)

By articulating the defining principles of many national policy initiatives today (i.e., English-only propositions, NCLB, and anti-immigrant initiatives), McLaren and Jaramillo illustrate how implicitly and explicitly Latina/o students have been the target of “the politics of erasure.” These policies are “unilaterally designed to erase students’ native language, national origin, and cultural formations” (p.99). The aims of education in this framework are to assimilate and acculturate the growing Latina/o population into the dominant ideology. Latina/o students are subjected to a pedagogy of dehumanization when educated in monolingual schools that encourage them to adopt “ways of being” that are both foreign and alien.

McLaren and Jaramillo call for a critical revolutionary vision of an educational system and society that “is driven not by a master narrative of liberation, but by a meta-narrative of hope and solidarity” (p. 86). While critical pedagogy has been accused of emphasizing ideology over inquiry, criticalists know that there are no ideologically free research practices. The authors explain, “The theoretical languages we use in our pursuit of knowledge about the social world become attributes of the actions of that world, they become part of our own self-comprehension….Seemingly objective facts are always already socially and historically produced or mediated” (p. 96). The authors argue that ideology then, realizes its goal when it is able to eradicate the evidence of its presence; ideology is always present, though frequently one is only aware of its presence retrospectively.

Critical pedagogy, McLaren and Jaramillo assert, emerges in the “everyday struggle on the part of the oppressed to release themselves from the burdens of political détente and democratic disengagement. It is anchored, in other words, in class struggle” (p. 49). The authors believe critical pedagogy must reconstruct the context of class struggle so that it includes school sites. The endless subordination of “life in schools” needs to face resistance as the process of schooling is increasingly “corporatized, bussinessified, and moralized.” As indicated by McLaren (2007b), critical pedagogy is in no way “commensurate with the attention it excites in the academic literature, yet it continues to provide an important site of praxis-making which can be used to educate and agitate about crucial issues that affect our collective future” (p. 311).  Critical educators, together with critical students, parents, and citizens need to move from criticism of class exploitation and social injustice to the search for a collective transformation.

Critical pedagogy: where are we now? We are in the schools, we are in the classroom, we are in the teacher education program, we are in grassroots organizations, we are in the communities – we are naming ourselves, and we aren’t quiet anymore. – Shirley Steinberg

We believe that critical pedagogues, like many academics, have been preaching to their believers. One of the objectives of critical pedagogy should be to reach out to graduate students and teachers in the field to engage them in conversations about the ways critical pedagogy can and should play a central role in educational praxis. More than a pedagogical practice and a way of knowing, dialogue is (Freire, 1989) “the encounter between [humans], mediated by the world, in order to name the world” (p. 76). Educational praxis is the agent for reflecting and acting upon the world as a means to transform it.

Steinberg (2007) considers critical pedagogy to be “a transgressive discourse, practice, and fluid way of seeing the world” (p. ix). Critical pedagogy continues to view the aims of education as emancipatory. Giroux (1994) offers, “Pedagogy in the critical sense illuminates the relationship between knowledge, authority and power” (p.30). The heart of critical pedagogy is now and has always been the teaching for social justice. Critical pedagogues are empowered by addressing the anger felt from the practices of social injustice around the globe. Creating a space for insurgency and critique, practitioners of critical pedagogy have, as argued by Steinberg, “the right to be angry, and to express anger, anger at the uses of power and at injustices through the violations of human rights. Critical pedagogy isn’t a talk – liberals talk. Critical pedagogy takes language from the radical – radicals must do” (p. ix).

From my perspective, a vibrant, relevant, effective critical pedagogy in the contemporary era must be simultaneously intellectually rigorous and accessible to multiple audiences. – Joe Kincheloe

Critical pedagogy, according to Joe Kincheloe (2007), recognizes the complex nature of the difficulties faced by educators who seek to promote economic and sociopolitical justice, intellectual development in individuals, institutional academic rigor, and the construction of practical transformative knowledge. Kincheloe maintains, “The pedagogical and research agenda of a complex critical pedagogy for the twenty-first century must address these realities as it constructs a plan to invigorate the teaching and study of such phenomena” (p. 16). Questions concerning power, justice, and praxis have been asked before in different times and locales, and continue to be the focus of critical pedagogy today. We agree with Kincheloe that critical pedagogy must not be sought only within the boundaries of the school; that critical pedagogy serves cultural workers, teachers, parents, students, and indeed all who engage in social activism outside the borders of the school. As advocates of critical pedagogy, we, like Kincheloe, “understand that no simple, universally applicable answers can be provided to the questions of justice, power, and praxis that haunt us” (p. 16). In spite of the absence of uncomplicated solutions, attempts at the questions advanced by the practice of critical pedagogy must continue to be aggressively explored, pursued, and unraveled.

For teachers to engage in the practice of critical pedagogy they must first clearly understand their role in and outside of the classroom; they must realize that situating critical pedagogy into practice will not be without challenges in today’s educational climate. As McLaren (2007a) states in his latest edition of Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, “resistance to the forces of colonization within and outside the US mainland carries a price” (p. 254). In spite of the difficulties of his context, Freire (1989) established classrooms where teachers played a key leadership role while respecting student autonomy. The result was the shared construction of critical knowledge built upon student knowledge. Emphasizing the importance on teacher/student collaboration, Freire posited, “I cannot think authentically unless others think. I cannot think for others or without others…Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry [people] pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (p. 7). Critical pedagogical conversations permit students and teachers to construct shared meanings, to analyze and critique in a spirit of collective learning and understanding. Just as relevant in today’s global classroom, Freire’s pedagogical vision of the connection between teacher and student is both transformed and transformational.

McLaren and Jaramillo focus critical educators on both the hope and the struggle ahead in their book,Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism. Critical pedagogy remains a source of hope and possibility for educators engaged in struggles against oppression in their classrooms. The time has come for teachers and educators to embrace critical pedagogy with a renewed interest and sense of urgency. As critical pedagogy comes under increasing attack by reactionary ideologies and ideologues, its message only becomes more urgent and important in these troubled and dangerous times.

The underlying theme of this book and other recent works by the authors is how capitalism functions in North America, as well as global contexts. For McLaren and Jaramillo, revolutionary critical pedagogy must progress beyond an understanding of what is problematic in today’s schools and society to an attitude of action that uproots the sexism, racism, homophobia, oppressed nationalities, and exploitation of contemporary capitalist society. As always, McLaren and Jaramillo’s view of the role of critical revolutionary pedagogy is informed by a “class-conscious ideology.” This work is a source of inspiration, of imagination, and most importantly, of hope. “The voices and actions of critical educators will become more crucial in the days ahead. Whatever organizational forms their struggles take, they will need to address a global audience who share a radical hope for a new world” (p. 57). Critical pedagogy is well-argued by the authors as a vehicle of great consequence in the construction of a socialist future.

Bryant Griffith is professor of Philosophy and Curriculum Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. His scholarship focuses on a wide range of social, cultural, and technological issues in education.

Kim Skinner is a Doctoral Student in Curriculum and Instruction at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Her scholarship focuses on critical issues in literacy education.


Freire, P. (1989). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. (Original work published in1970)

Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. (R. R. Barr, Trans.) New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. A. (1994). Disturbing pleasures: Learning popular culture. New York: Routledge.

Kincheloe, J. (2007). “Critical pedagogy in the twenty-first century: Evolution for survival”. In P. McLaren & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? (pp. 9-42). New York: Peter Lang.

McLaren, P. (2007a). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

McLaren, P. (2007b). “The future of the past: Reflections on the present state of empire and pedagogy”. In P. McLaren & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? (pp. 289-314). New York: Peter Lang.

Steinberg, S. (2007). “Where are we now?” In P. McLaren & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), Critical pedagogy: Where are we now? (pp. ix-x). New York: Peter Lang.

Review Symposium: “Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire” (1)

Brad J. Porfilio

Peter McLaren and Nathalia Jaramillo, Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism, Sense Publications, The Netherlands, 2007; 200pp. 

Over the past decade, the field of critical pedagogy has gradually (re)embraced class-based analyses of what larger political, economic, and social forces perpetuate unjust policies, practices and institutions, which are responsible for the conditions that create oppression, hate, hostility, violence, and domination in schools and other social contexts across the globe. Much of the resuscitation of a Marxist humanist perspective in the world of critical pedagogy is in response to how transnational capitalists and Western politicians employ “an any means necessary approach” to commodify all aspects of life across the planet as well as to suffocate any forms of resistance or dissent launched against the social relations of capital that has led to the ruling elite’s unprecedented wealth and power and to the utter “devastation for the ranks of the poor” (Pozo, 2003)   It is also linked to the fact that much of the postmodern scholarship produced by critical pedagogues during the 1980s and 1990s focused on identity narratives, which brought newfound awareness to the discursive systems of power that trivialize or demonize the Other, gave resonance to the voices of peoples oppressed on the axes of race, class, gender and sexuality, and lent space for individuals to cross ethnic, race, class, gender, and sexual “borders” to create empowering forms of selfhood, but arguably this movement failed to account for how the larger power structures used “representations” “to exploit the objective world (as opposed to the lexical universe) of the working-classes” (Ibid).

In Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism, Peter McLaren, one of thisgeneration’s leading critical pedagogues, social theorists and cultural workers, and Nathalia Jaramillo of Purdue University set out to provide critical-scholar practitioners and other concerned citizens four riveting essays that pinpoint how the current “crises of global capitalism” is linked to barbarism, naked imperialism, torture, xenophobia, racism, environmental degradation, suffering and domination faced by schoolchildren, teachers, and working-class citizens in various global contexts (p.6), while concomitantly providing them emancipatory guideposts, visions which have the potency to turn their social movements into a political project that makes “the interconnections among capitalism, ecosystem destruction and the racialization of the exploitation of human labor more transparent and less seemingly inevitable-and to find ways of bringing about a socialist alternative” (p.18).

In the Introduction, “What a Disaster: The Rising Tide of Belligerence,” the authors provide a critical examination of Hurricane Katrina to contextualize their arguments in relation to how “class warfare and racism” perpetuate capitalism, oppression, and domination in the United States (p.6).  They show how the US government’s (or lack thereof) response to the victims of Katrina “is emblematic of the fate of those oppressed by the racists and imperialistic practices of global neoliberalism” (p.7). US government officials and mass media outlets failed to explicate how the victims of Katrina – mainly impoverished and elderly African Americans – endured the wrath of neoliberal capitalism before the tragedy unfolded.  Because of the capitalists’ unquenchable desire to make a profit, many African Americans in New Orleans, like other people of color in the US, were without adequate healthcare, food, shelter, public transportation, and education.  Not coincidently, during the tragedy, the US government and major media outlets played upon America’s racists’ fears and blamed the victims for the pernicious and tragic events that transpired in New Orleans. Untrue stories of African Americans, such as African American men “gang raping women and children, looting stores of liquor and drugs, shooting at ambulances, police patrols, and rescue helicopters, and throwing the city into a vortex of violence and anarchy” were told on nightly newscasts and chronicled in newspaper columns (p.9). After pumping the public full of fear and lies, George Bush, transnational corporations, and faith-based politicians shamelessly used the tragedy to advance “their fundamentalist ideologies,” their desire to promulgate military imperatives to solve conflicts, and to find new entrepreneurial opportunities during the rebuilding phase in New Orleans (p.13-17).  In the end, the authors capture how the elite’s propaganda was, in part, responsible for many flag-waving, unenlightened citizens viewing the event either as God’s mandate to punish the sinners in New Orleans, as the “Other” “typically” acting inline with aberrant forms of stereotypes, or as a barometer of the ruling elite’s power to save its White citizens from another form of savagery and tragedy (p.11). The authors conclude the introduction by showing, correctly, what is conveniently left out of ruling elite’s depiction of this tragedy.  The fact that capitalists are ill-concerned about the moral, social, and spiritual needs of their citizens or the “deaths of thousands of human beings or eco-destructively that leads to the elimination of the biosphere” (p.18).

In the first chapter, “Critical Pedagogy as Organizational Praxis: Challenging the Demise of Civil Society in a Time of Permanent War,” the authors document the impact of US imperialism in Iraq and other such unjust incursions across Latin America to challenge progressive educators to revive critical pedagogy-to ensure it challenges the neo-liberal onslaught of globalization “and its “civilizing mission” for the oppressed of developed and developing countries alike” (p.34).  Here, McLaren and Jaramillo do an excellent job capturing how critical pedagogy has been domesticated by the same transnational elite’s agenda to garner the world’s labor power and resources.  Progressive teachers are often forced to remain silent in the struggle to guide their students to understand how corporate greed perpetuates injustices in schools and other social contexts because the “corporate logic of privatization and the imperialistic ideology of the militarized state” are driving what is taught and how students’ learn in schools across the globe (p.33).  Despite the barriers critical educators may face when instituting a revolutionary agenda inside and outside of their classrooms, the authors optimistically think that, critical educators can work collectively to subvert the hegemony of neoliberal globalization.  In the remaining part of the essay, they provide us with several strategies to overcome “the dilemma and the challenge of the global working-class” (p.39), point to their own cultural work in Latin America to document how working-class peoples have successfully forged “new forms of social organization as part of revolutionary praxis” (p.41), and believe the most “important front against capitalism is stopping the US from invading more countries” (p. 56).

In Chapter 2, the authors provide a critical examination of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – “a major political initiative that has been extolled by the Bush administration as the most significant educational reform package in the history of the nation” (p.65).  The authors show that the alleged revolutionary policy in educational reform, which was touted to produce “higher quality, more equitable, and more accountable public schools,” (Wood 2004) was used during Bush’s reelection bid in 2004 to camouflage legislation “that renounces civil liberties” and to block the public from focusing on the elite’s imperialistic missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to the “slaughter of dissidents” and to the spending of billons of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars (p.74).  The policy itself has been instrumental in allowing the Bush administration to further its larger agenda to militarize and commercialize the planet.  They capture how the act has given power to military recruiters to cajole poor and working-class students into combat and provided companies, such as “the Big Four” testing companies (e.g., CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing, Hartcourt Educational Measurement and NCS Pearson), an easy path to feed their coffers through high-stakes testing and accountability schemes (p.78-79).  Other scholars have also recently shown how NCLB has made it very arduous for many US schoolteachers to implement pedagogical projects geared to subvert the capitalist social relations. For instance, Jonathan Kozol has been fasting to bring attention to how NCLB has boiled teaching and schooling in urban schools down to “miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic “teaching to the test,” pushed thousands of enlightened schoolteachers to quit their jobs, and positioned many urban youths to disengage from the schooling process (Kozol 2007). The authors conclude the chapter by highlighting the efforts of various grassroots educational movements such as the Center for Education and Justice, groups that are making inroads in promoting the critical revolutionary agenda in schools (p.81).

In Chapter 3, the authors illuminate “the importance and efficacy of Marxist theory” in relation to taking inventory of the form of Latina(o) education in the US (p.93).  The authors argue that several national policy initiatives enacted over the past decade, such as the NCLB Act, English-only propositions, and anti-immigrant initiatives, are reflexive of the ruling elite’s desire to erase marginalized “students native language, national origins, and cultural formations” (p.99). The policies amount to a politics of erasure in which transnational corporations, political leaders, and scholars, such as Samuel Huntington, use education as the chief apparatus to assimilate and acculturate “a growing Latina(o) population into the economic and social dimension of an increasingly imperial and militaristic Pax Americana” (p.99). The form of schooling provided to assimilate Latina(o) students also serves to “alienate them from their local histories, their culture and location where their knowledge is most readily inscribed” (p.109). Not only do the author believe the contemporary neocolonial model of education keeps Latina(o) youths filling dead-end jobs for US capitalists, but they argue it legitimizes to members of the dominant society their “superiority” and subordination of the Other (p.105). The authors also pinpoint how the US government purposely denigrates Latino(a) culture, language and experiences as a way to gain public support to “export democracy” to the region. However, when the US government and Western corporations intervene in non-Western regions, McLaren and Jaramillo find that the only things they export are the peoples’ resources and labor power (p.99).  The authors conclude this chapter by focusing on their own work with social and political movements across Latin America. The major lesson they learned was there remains much promise and possibility to build a larger democratic project across the globe with “people who refuse to become peons within a transnational elite protectorate stage managed by Washington” (p.106).

In the book’s final essay, the authors lend a critical examination of how “the crisis of global capitalism” has unfolded during the Bush administration.  We learn that Bush is a mere servant for the military-industrial complex. His hawkish corporate executives, political advisors, and religious irrationalists dream of creating a neoliberal empire, where “civilized” US officials, under a mandate from God, will lead the Other to become enlightened (p.128). The authors show how the mass media has served as Bush’s handmaiden to craft theocratic nationalist rhetoric, helping him lull working-class and unemployed poor Christians, right-wing Christian Zionists, and middle-class evangelical Christians to support his administration’s “War on Terror.” Besides the environmental destruction, torturing of soldiers and civilians, outright attack on any forms of dissent against US foreign or domestic policies, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of citizens during the ruling elite’s imperialistic raids across the Middle East, the authors indicate that US citizens are still politically unconscious that their country is headed on a course to continue to use force to garner resources and exploit dispossessed citizens, on a quest to build a theocratic empire, and in the process of becoming a fascist state (p.190).  The authors conclude the book with a clarion call to the US public to take the first step to examine what is causing terrorism and imperialism at today’s historical juncture. This may spark critical educators to revamp their pedagogy so as to educate their students on how capitalists’ social relations of production are antithetical to producing a society predicated on democracy, love, fairness and equity, but are firmly linked to producing the hate, violence, greed, and oppression that has permeated life under the misguided leadership of “God’s Cowboy Warrior.”

Overall, McLaren and Jaramillo’s book is must read for critical theorists, graduate students, those new to the field of critical pedagogy, and any concerned citizen seeking a Marxist analysis of what constitutive forces mediated life in schools and the wider social world during the past decade. This book provides critical insight to help us recognize how the current configuration of capitalism is inextricably linked to the Bush administration’s imperialistic policies and practices and its domestic policies of indifference and “blaming the victims” who experience the fallout associated with corporate greed, to privatization and militarization of schooling and life, to Latino(a) students’ alienation and marginalization in US schools, and to the US government’s embracement of theocratic and neo-fascist impulses. In contrast to the egregious and erroneous claim by Bill Ayers (2006) that the authors have failed on previous occasions to provide their readers with pedagogical guideposts or theoretical insights to “change their world” and to build a socialist alternative, Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism is grounded with concrete examples of working-class citizens confronting oppressive social formations and building larger political movements earmarked to create a socialist alternative to neoliberal capitalism. It is also layered with theoretical insights in relation to how critical pedagogues can retool their pedagogy to help their students understand how the “current crisis of capitalism” is antithetical to improving the material and spiritual condition of humanity, while simultaneously capturing how life would be ameliorated outside the orbit of transnational capitalism.

Brad J. Porfilio is Assistant Professor of Education at Saint Louis University, St Louis, Missouri (US).


Ayers, William. December 2006. “Essay Review of Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire. Notes From A Self-Realizing, Sensuous, Species-Being ( I Think).” Teachers College Record.  http://billayers.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/

Kozol, Jonathan. September 10, 2007. “Why I am fasting: An Explanation to My Friends.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-kozol/why-i-am-fasting-an-expl_b_63622.html

Pozo, Michael. Fall, 2003. “Toward a Critical Revolutionary Pedagogy: An Interview with Peter McLaren.” St. John’s University Humanities Review, 2(1)http://facpub.stjohns.edu/~ganterg/sjureview/vol2-1/mclaren.html

Wood, George. 2004. “Introduction.”  In How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and our Schools. Edited by Deborah Meier’s, et al. Boston: Beacon Press.