An Address to La Fundación McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica

July 31, 2004
Tijuana, Mexico

When I was a child growing up in Canada in the 1950s, I shared a fear similar to that of some of my neighborhood friends: that one day all the mannequins in the downtown department stores (the now defunct Eatons and Simpsons) would come to life and take over the world. It seems, a half century later, that my fear was justified. The department store mannequins have indeed taken over the world. They captured the Bush Jr. White House in that notorious stolen presidential election that my UCLA colleague, Doug Kellner, refers to as 'grand theft 2000.' Having convinced a large segment of the American population that they are the only ones capable of looking after the security and well being of United States citizens, the Bush Jr. junta took advantage of a tragic terrorist attack on the country to create a climate of fear that would rival even the skills of Sauron, a culture of intimidation and hostility that continues to serve as a smokescreen for its empire-building. The right wing hawks of the Bush Jr. administration have transformed the United States into our boy-emperor's private whirligig, spinning across the global playground. Few global leaders refuse to play along, because the stakes are too high. But they are even higher when the game is allowed to continue. It is not the world leaders that will bring the game to a halt, but the people who are suffering the most as a result.

One of the most alarming aspects of life in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001(what I have referred to as a 'saber slash across the cheekbones of history') for me has been the religious punditry that characterizes Bush's claim to be a special envoy of God, providing him in the eyes of many United States citizens with the moral authority to turn the carnage inflicted by the world's most fearsome military machine into a mass graveyard for evil-doers who have been deemed enemies of civilization. For many, it has also put God's stamp of approval on capitalism as a way of life in a way much more ideologically formidable than a stack of U.S. greenbacks stamped with 'In God We Trust.' For the true believers, God apparently regulates the world through the deregulation of the economy, where human beings can rise out the ashes of poverty and into the wellspring of the American middle-class dream, if only they would commit themselves the trickle-down inevitability of capitalist self-interest and trust the global robber barons to make life better for everyone. After all, trusting in God is one way to become rich, as the evangelical mega-churches so vociferously proclaim in their prosperity preaching throughout the country. A recent comment by Jonathan Steinberg (2004) is apposite: 'Poverty still exists in America, as Bush argued in the State of the Union address of 2003, because the poor fail to find true Christian charity among their neighbors. Hence, his compassionate conservatism requires faith-based initiatives by local churches and not progressive taxation'.

Many U.S. citizens might well consider if it is part of a faith-based initiative to disregard U.S. and international law by ordering the torture of foreign prisoners. When the Defense Department's chief counsel assures the president that inflicting mental and physical pain could be made legal, and that Bush and his torturers would remain immune from any charges related to the treatment of illegal combatants, and when the president is tacitly complicitous in redefining torture and refuses to disclose any of the 24 supposedly humane interrogation methods for foreign prisoners, we have good cause to consider what it means to be an envoy of God, a Joan of Arc in Texas chaps occupying the Oval Office. Or are we dealing here with just your rank-and-file imperialist claiming the sovereign right of nullification, or perhaps even the Divine Right of Kings? When the best minds that Bush can muster in his circle of advisors and among the military elite are reading The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai to understand Iraqis, and giving credence to the insights generated within its pages (such as 'Arabs only understand force,' and that the 'biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation'), then perhaps we can better understand the horror that has come to be known as Abu Ghraib.

While free market democracies are spreading globally like fungus spores in a tornado, those whose labor-power is now deemed worthless have the choice of selling their organs, working the plantations or mines, or going into prostitution. The United States is free to export its pollution to Latin America, where maquiladoras factories dot the free trade zones. In Africa, thriving businesses sell 'dead white men's clothing' in places such as the Congo, Nigeria, Lagos, Liberia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi and Togo; where global capitalism has turned Africa into the world's recycling bin that includes not only second-hand clothes, but also expired medicines, antiquated computers, polluting refrigerators and air conditioners and old mattresses and used vehicles imported from Japan (Maharaj, 2004). Tony Wilden published the following quotation in his famous 1980 book, The Imaginary Canadian, a quotation that reverberates with as much relevance and intensity today as it did a quarter of a century ago:

Capitalism has sown the whirlwind; the peoples of the word are forces to reap it. Capitalism is closer to being totally out of control than it has ever been before. It is a system that can never be satisfied, no matter what we do. The colonization of the wretched of the earth continues to increase. Feudal, slave, and other kinds of fascist relations in the family, in the factory and the field, in the corporation, in the schools was ever more oppressive. At the same time, capitalism's suicidal attempt to colonize nature proceeds as yet unchecked. There is no longer any doubt that the short-range survival values of capitalism are in direct and violent conflict with the long-range survival as human beings of everyone on earth. In order for the production of exchange values to keep growing, it becomes necessary to invent practically useless use values and to create and recreate an environment of consumers who think they need them. Capitalism ignores constraints on such growth invented by non-capitalist societies in their quest for long-range survival, the ultimate use value. Unfortunately, these other societies did not know how to survive capitalism and we don_t know either, as yet. (1980, p. 223)

At a time of an unprecedented globalization of capital, the increasingly privatized public sphere gives form and substance to the avidity of the ruling elite as reemerging rivalries between national bourgeoisies and cross-national class formations hold the working-classes hostage to one signal goal: competitive return on investment capital. The pettifogging advocates of capital armed with one-dimensional banality continually traduce the principles of participatory democracy and present us with what I have called over the years a 'democracy of empty forms', a formal democracy. It is this hollow democracy defended by the shameful ferreters working for the corporate media, against which critical pedagogy fights an uphill battle, calibrating its project of social transformation. Meanwhile, at home, a general intensification of labor proceeds apace: a relentless over-extension of the working day, cutbacks in resources and social programs, tax breaks for the very rich, egregious violations of laws by corporate executives, and a lack of waged work. All of this is taking place under the banner of the preferred euphemism for imperialism: fighting terrorism and bringing about free market democracy.

It's hard to posit a socialist alternative to such global misery without feeling like Sisyphus with his block of stone toiling in the realm of the dead, or like Tantalus stranded in America, locked in a strip mall diner and each time he reaches for a burger and fries, his formica table top arches out of reach. The construction of a new vision of human sociality has never been more urgent in a world of where the United States seeks unchallenged supremacy over all other nation states by controlling the regulatory regimes of supra-national institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But a new vision of human sociality is precisely what is not offered by progressive educators, often despite sedulous research underlain by an unbidden impulse to make sense of what has gone wrong with schools and universities and the society in which they function. Woefully absent in their work is an alternative social vision of what the world should and could look like outside the value form of capital.

Enter critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is secured by the most fecund of revolutionary talismans: critique. It is focused not only on the practice of critique but also on the critique of pedagogical practice. Unfortunately, too many progressive educators still in the thrall of postmodern social theory mistake discursive empowerment for social and economic transformation. Their coming to voice and the politics of self affirmation and self-identity that they so tenaciously advocate fails in the main to challenge the gross materiality of exploitation. The decompression chamber in which their pedagogy currently rests must be opened up to a re-materialized critique. This is one of the many issues and challenges that La Fundación McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica will, I am sure, address in the struggle ahead. In creating necessary conditions for revolutionary social change, the critical pedagogy that this organization hopes to advance recognizes the limits of traditional pragmatist reformist practice by prioritizing the need to question the deeper problems, particularly the violent contradictions (e.g., the gap between racism and the American Dream, between capital and labor), under which students and the general population are forced to live.

Critical revolutionary pedagogy begins with the following questions: Do we know whose hands ground the capitalist lenses through which we comprehend the world and do we know from whence came the bloodstains on the lens grinder's workbench? Whether we know the answers to such questions, they must be followed by a further question: How and why is this so? If we know the answers, what are they? If we don_t know, why is this so? If there are better questions to be asked, what are they? Critical revolutionary pedagogy serves the important purpose of generating new ways of thinking about the state and its relationship to the production of and possibilities for human agency both now and in the crucial years ahead of us. Humans are conditioned by structures and social relations just as they create and transform those structures and relations. But what has been forgotten or at least neglected at great perils are the over-determining effects of capital as a social relation. Against tremendous odds, the challenge of educators over the last several decades has been to humanize the classroom environment and to create pedagogical spaces for linking education to the praxiological dimensions of social justice initiatives and to that end we are indebted to critical pedagogy. Given the urgent times we live in, we need to ratchet up the struggle ahead. This has been the singular challenge of critical pedagogy.

For this reason, I have attempted to up the ante by challenging the pedagogical encounter to consider its own insinuation into globalized social relations of exploitation and to live up to its revolutionary potential of becoming a transnational, gender-balanced, multiracial, anti-imperialist struggle. Everything in human history passes through the realm of subjectivity and it is through this dance of the dialectic that we create history. The democracy in which we live is indeed at a tragic crossroads, as is capitalism itself, and we must fiercely continue to question the present historical course that have wedded the two together.

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

Raising such questions is a useful beginning in developing a coherent philosophy of praxis. I have tried to raise these, and more, throughout my work over the past several decades. Planning strategies of action, local and transnational in scope, is another, and perhaps the most crucial, dimension of revolutionary social transformation that is a necessary aspect of critical revolutionary pedagogy. This organization, La Fundación McLaren de Pedagogía Crítica, is attempting to provide a framework in which such practices might be discussed -- and lived. My approach is one particular foray into the politics of critical pedagogy. I am not claiming that it is the only path. But I do believe it is a necessary one. It is critical of the way that this emergent field has already shown signs of political domestication. In my criticisms of the educational left in the United States, I have tried to make a case for including Marxist analysis namely historical materialism in critical educational studies, not an easy task especially during the organic crisis of capitalism we are facing at this current historical juncture, not to mention the steady movement towards fascism we have been experiencing in the United States. In a few months time, we will know if we have to face down the Bush cabal for another four years (not that I believe the Kerry administration will be much better). If you look closely enough behind Bush Jr.'s trademark smirk and the bloodshot eyes of Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice and Wolfowitz, you'll find Leo Strauss, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and William McKinley staring back at you.

These few remarks to you today have been an attempt to talk back to them. And to block their path and those of any future neoliberal and imperial regimes with the power of critique and a determination oxygenated by a revolutionary optimism of the will. I am grateful that you have chosen to name your revolutionary foundation after me. It is an honor that I do not take lightly. A true renewal of thinking about educational and social reform must pass through a regeneration of Marxist theory if the great and fertile meaning of human rights and equality is to reverberate in the hopes of aggrieved populations throughout the world. Education in its current incarnation is bound up with the fate of corporate-led global capitalism and its unbridled capacity for accumulation. It is an integral part of the state, the self-interest of the ruling classes, and the dictatorship of vested interests, and for these very reasons it is unlikely that it will melt away in the face of the moral authority of reformers or the special pleading of progressives. If critical educational studies is to avoid being hijacked into accepting the established order, or annexed to pro-capitalist forces among the left, or transformed into a recruiting ground for liberal reform efforts, or even worse, turned into an outpost for authoritarian, autocratic or reactionary populism, or liberal communitarianism, it will largely be due to the efforts of people such as yourselves who understand that you are fighting something more than a state corrupted by capitalism. You recognize that it is the very nature of the state to serve the interests of capital. You realize that you can't reform the state; you can only transform it into something wholly other to capital.

You are the resistance to the erosion of democracy

appearance of hope. You are the resistance to the new constitutional order of the market-state and the epochal wars waged to bring it about. You are the grassroots agents who will seize state power--the political expression, legitimation by means of law, and military defense of capitalist rule-- in order to transform it outside of the capitalist law of value. You are the seedbed of insurrection by creating the possibility of new forms of political representation. Thank you for extending this honor to me, and for reaching out across la frontera, la linea, to advance the struggle for socialism and democracy.

La lucha continua!

Hasta la victoria siempre!

Peter McLaren is Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. His website is:

Mike Alexander Pozo was Editor of The St. John's University Humanities Review. He is now a doctoral student in the Literature Department at UC San Diego.


Maharaj, Davan. (2004). 'For Sale Cheap: 'Dead White Men's Clothing',' Los Angeles Times. Wednesday, July, 14.

Kellner, Doug. (2001). Grand Theft 2000: Media Spectacle and a Stolen Election. Landham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Patai, Raphael. (2002). The Arab Mind. Long Island City, N.Y.: Hatherleigh Press.

Steinberg, Jonathan. (2004). 'A Mighty Fortress is His God,' The Miami Herald, July, 18. As retrieved from: Wilden, Anthony. (1980). The Imaginary Canadian: An Examination for Discovery. Vancouver, Canada: Pulp Press.