E. SAN JUAN: THE RETURN
OF THE TRANFORMATIVE INTELLECTUAL
by Peter McLaren
Professor of Graduate Education
University of California, Los Angeles
The catastrophic decline of Wall Street and the global meltdown of finance capital in September and October 2008 signal a fortuitous turn in world history. It marks the beginning of the end of imperialist domination, a warning to the transnational capitalist class, and the advent of socialist reconstruction. Local and transnational movements for social justice have been significantly impacted by what has been taking place on a global basis since capital began responding to the crisis of the 1970s of Fordist-Keynesian capitalism–which William I. Robinson (2008) has characterized as capital’s ferocious quest to break free of nation state constraints to accumulation and 20th century regulated capital-labor relations based on a limited number of reciprocal commitments and rights.
Accordingly, we have witnessed the development of a new transnational model of accumulation in which transnational fractions of capital have become dominant in part because of new mechanisms of accumulation which include a cheapening of labor and the growth of flexible, deregulated and de-unionized labor where women always experience super-exploitation in relation to men; the dramatic expansion of finance capital; the creation of a global and regulatory structure to facilitate the emerging global circuits of accumulation; and neoliberal structural adjustment programs which seek to create the conditions for frictionless operations of emerging transnational capital across borders and between countries. And while there still exists national capital, global capital, and regional capitals, the hegemonic fraction of capital on a world scale is now transnational capital. So we are seeing the profound dismantling of national economies, the reorganization and reconstitution of national economies as component elements or segments of a larger global production and financial system which is organized in a globally fragmented and a decentralized way and that is controlled by the concentrated and centralized power of the transnational capitalist class. The role of the nation state has changed to meet globally uniform laws that product capital against the interests of the international working class. The nation state still serves local capital but it can no longer fetter the transnational movement of capital with its endless chains of accumulation. But the nation state still serves the interests of capital against labor. As Marx and Engels put it, the nation state remains “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (1977:44).
After the end of the Cold War, the world waited in expectant anticipation for a renewal of hope and a revival of the struggle for global democracy. September 11, 2001, however, blasted that hope and ushered a terrible era of what the neoconservative corporate elite called “the global war on terrorism.” The horrendous death of millions of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, etc. as well as the death of thousands of American and European soldiers, following Bush’s criminal and barbaric over-kill occupation of Iraq were only preludes to the disaster we are witnessing today: the US practice of torture such as waterboarding (as seen at Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo prison holding “unlawful combatants”), “extraordinary renditions,” and the numerous violations of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights all comprising war crimes. These may have led to the ouster of the reactionary Republican administration and the historic election of Barack Obama, the first African American to occupy the White House. Let us hope that November 4, 2008 may be seen later on to have marked the decisive opening of a new page in history–the renewal of social transformation begun in the Civil Rights/national-liberation struggles and the international youth revolt of the sixties.
San Juan’s book, Critique and Social Transformation: Gramsci, Bakhtin, Williams (The Edwin Mellen Press) intends to contribute to this renewal in both theory and practice not only in the United States but throughout the world. A diasporic intellectual from the Philippines, E. San Juan, Jr., a scholar with a protean international reputation, first acquired his apprenticeship in popular democracy in the nationalist movement in his homeland in the fifties. After graduate work at Harvard University (just after Edward Said finished and while Fredric Jameson was completing his groundbreaking Marxism and Form in Cambridge, Massachusetts), San Juan participated in the academic revision of the canon and opening up of the traditional disciplines of literary and comparative ethnic studies from the seventies to 2001 when he retired as chair of the Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University. His numerous contributions to the radical change of perspective in comparative cultural and postcolonial studies, as well as in Asian American literary theory and Philippine-American cultural relations, continue to register effects in the scholarly practice of progressive intellectuals in North America, the Philippines, Asia, Europe, and elsewhere.
San Juan is arguably one of the most important intellectuals of our times. There are few scholars today who are able to capture with such rigor and verve the historically heterogeneous and discontinuous relations of exploitation, domination and conflict constitutive of today’s social existence in the global arena of neoliberal capitalism and the system of wage labor. Part of San Juan’s remarkable contribution to our understanding of contemporary social life is his profound grasp of critical social theory and his deployment of historical materialist critique to reveal both the limitations and folly of much of what passes today as postmodern and postcolonial studies.
San Juan has been hailed as a vital public intellectual by Amiri Baraka, Michael Denning, Bertell Ollman, Bruce Franklin, Alan Wald, Fredric Jameson and other prestigious scholars. Allow me to cite a few uncompromising breakthroughs marked by San Juan’s books: Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle, Racial/Critical Transformations (which the noted social scientist Wilbur Zelinsky praised as unique and exceptional in grasping “the crucial actuality of race in any depth”), Hegemony and Strategies of Transgression, The Philippine Temptation, Racism and Cultural Studies, Working Through the Contradictions, and In the Wake of Terror: Class, Race, Nation and Ethnicity in the Postmodern World. His critique of the mainstream discipline of postcolonial studies, Beyond Postcolonial Theory, is already a classic text among third-world communities and committed cultural activists.
Countless North American activists are indebted to San Juan’s influential edition of Georg Lukacs’ essays in English in 1972, Marxism and Human Liberation. Together with the anti-Marcos dictatorship movement in 1972-1986, San Juan’s exposure to the impact of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China on American and Filipino youth impelled him to to explore further the prodigious and durable archive of Marxist praxis that inherits, reconfigures, and at the same time breaks with the Enlightenment tradition of humanist philosophy with roots in Greek, African, and Asian civilizations. This led San Juan to a deeper, wide-ranging inquiry into the works of Antonio Gramsci, Mikhail Bakhtin and Raymond Williams at a time when neoconservative reaction had practically commodified and prostituted all spaces for free thought. Not only is this volume of essays important in renewing a radical trend in the humanities and social theory; but it also provides an intellectual weapon and cultural resource for carrying on the struggle against reactionary neoliberal ideology that legitimizes the corporate exploitation of peoples and the profit-driven destruction of the biosphere.
What is significant in this commentary on the ideas of Gramsci, Bakhtin and Williams is San Juan’s synthesis of what might be stigmatized as “Western Marxism” with the dense and complex sociohistorical formation of the Philippines. His approach is truly dialectical-materialist in form and substance. That is why he can fully appreciate Gramsci’s “national-popular” as an integral element of hegemony, the intellectual-moral leadership of a historic bloc of workers, peasants and middle strata, in overthrowing capitalist oppression. Consequently San Juan’s analysis of the role of organic intellectuals, as well as the function of culture, folklore and language in a revolutionary process, is closer to Gramsci’s thought, given the centrality of the peasant question for both the Italian and Philippine proletarian movements. San Juan’s appraisal of Gramsci’s Marxism as a “philosophy of praxis” which, though grounded in the master narrative of popular liberation from the realm of necessity, grasps the concrete experience and dynamic consciousness of the subaltern masses as the motor-force in changing history. In this sense, more cogent and realistic than North American commentaries, San Juan’s assessment of Prison Notebooks demonstrates the permanent usefulness of Gramsci’s fundamental lesson to “renovate” and make “critical” the “already existing activity” and “common sense” immanent in everyday working life.
In the Philippines, the notion of the nation-people grew out of the revolutionary anticolonial struggles of Filipinos against Spanish colonialism and US occupation after the Filipino-American War (1899-1913), the “first Vietnam.” Reacting to the comprador-landlord “nationalism” subsumed in US tutelage, Filipino historians in the sixties re-discovered the millenary sectarian movements of peasant insurgents. But it was a dead-end since folk religiosity mortgaged to charismatic leaders had always been neutralized by the demagogic populism of the corrupt, servile Filipino oligarchy. In his research into medieval culture, Bakhtin understood the duplicity of this utopian tendency. Stalinism was not the threat; fascist populism was, as happened in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. Just like Gramsci, Bakhtin did not give up faith in the inexhaustible resources of the plebian grass-roots constituency. He valued the folk tradition of carnival, masquerades, and ritualized fantasies that symbolized anarchist freedom, equality, and convivial solidarity. San Juan deploys Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic sensibility as a mode of parsing the discourse of third-world revolutionaries in confronting the bloody specter of imperial power. He endorses Bakhtin’s materialist notion of “the sign as the arena of class struggle” as a way of refuting the obsession with scholastic discourse analysis and ludic games performed by the disciples of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and other master-thinkers that still dominate the academic playground. San Juan’s explanation of Bakhtin’s emphasis on speech-genres, chronotope and heteroglossia is salutary in a time when a kind of spontaneous, ego-centered libertarianism is hawked by neoliberal circles as an answer to the proverbial dogmatism of the left. As San Juan points out, it is precisely the dialectic between constraining form and recalcitrant material forces that enables a revolutionary rupture to take place.
San Juan grew up under the neocolonial regime of comprador capitalism in the Philippines, legitimized by US meritocratic ideology operating in the public and private spheres. The Philippines offers an excellent laboratory milieu of an uneven, heterogeneous, conflicted social formation in which diverse modes of production co-exist. Raymond Williams proves extremely serviceable in helping San Juan to analyze the Philippine problematique of manifold contradictions. Adapting Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Bakhtin’s dialogism, Williams invents the paradigm of intellectual/cultural formation. In his anatomy of Britain as a social formation, Williams discerns residual, dominant, and emergent trends intertwined in the sociopolitical conjuncture, complicating the logic of class war as it manifests itself in literature, art, film, habits, and commonsense beliefs–a complex of thought and action defined as a “structure of feeling” for a given historical epoch. “Structure of feeling” combines the structured. generic social conventions and the raw needs and desires that subtend individual experience in a fashion more dialectical than competing notions such as Derrida’s “differance” or Foucault’s “procedures” and “disciplinary” epistemes.
Most helpful is San Juan’s focus on Williams’ sense of culture as lived experience constituted and rendered intelligible by its political, economic, and linguistic contexts. San Juan articulates Williams’ project in the theorizing of “cultural revolution” as the kernel of the emergent field of interdisciplinary cultural studies that Williams inaugurated before the social explosion of 1968 and its aftermath. San Juan’s exposition of Williams’ major themes is masterly and lucid, in no small part due to his estimation of the worth and implication of Williams’ abstract propositions from the perspective of their potential efficacy in the current anti-imperialist struggle in the Philippines, as well as in the phenomenal resurgence of popular-democratic movements in the global South–particularly in Latin America, as well as in Nepal and the Philippines–catalyzed by the US-led militaristic, implicitly genocidal “war on terrorism” devastating the lives of millions of innocent civilians, polluting the environment, and precipitating the crisis in neoliberal political economies and the collapse of the globalized market which I alluded to at the outset.
In line with not only interpreting but also changing life, the process of history–both the author and his subjects–frames this valuable scholarly intervention. Gramsci, Bakhtin and Williams are all cultural materialists as well as practictioners of a historicizing critical pedagogy. They join other powerful and exemplary teachers of this tradition: Che Guevara, Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, CLR James, Yuri Kochiyama, and others. In connecting these three thinkers, not exactly as “masters of suspicion” but as skillful practitioners of dialectical thinking, San Juan invokes the primacy of the category of critique. What is meant by “critique” here is not a specific type of criticism but a mode of interrogating and comprehending the process of reflection itself and its objects in a specific historical conjuncture and taking into careful consideration geopolitical influences in the fashioning of subjectivity. It involves the analysis and evaluation of the total situation of learning, understanding, problem-solving, teaching, communication, and sharing–what could be called a dynamic system of intelligibility. In effect, thinking and living are inextricably connected in the paradigms and frameworks of cognition and affective lived experience. Critique thus implies the historical situatedness of both the living body of the thinker and her thought-process. Critique implies change and unceasing transition of ideas, institutions and social systems from one historical stage to another. It involves a historicizing self-reflection that establishes the limits and potential of modes of thought in the project of liberating humanity from capitalist domination; from racist, sexist, gender and religious oppression based on alienated production relations, not just instrumentalist reification (as proposed by the Frankfurt Critical theorists Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse). Hence not all ideas or praxis are useful or valid.
In conducting the “wars” of position and of maneuver, San Juan aims for a concretely differentiated totality now anathema to cosmopolitanizing, transnationalist academics. With at times a brazen verve, San Juan deftly brushes the postcolonial project against the grain by decolonizing the postcolonial project itself in a masterful act of double negation or, as Raya Dunayevskaya would put it, absolute negativity as a seedbed for a new beginning. His project is to envision an overarching narrative that would frame the teachings of Gramsci, Bakhtin and Williams, an all-encompassing praxis that would mobilize their critique of ideology and political economy for the purpose of collective liberation from capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression.
San Juan never loses sight of the fact that the central condition for capitalist exploitation is the control of labor by capital in the global distribution of labor (Euro-core capital-labor relations and colonial-periphery capital-labor relations) and that this reality has decisive implications for the character and development of intersubjective, authority, gender, race and productive relations–relations which admittedly are historically heterogeneous, fostering forms of societal intersubjectivity which under the right conditions can ignite revolutionary hope and foster transformative possibility. What concerns San Juan is not only the distribution of power centered on relations of exploitation, domination and conflict among social groups living out a determinate history within the dank and musty precincts of capital but the primacy of speaking truth to such power relations in order to transform them. As both nuanced scholarship and rigorous critical practice, San Juan’s work is a brilliant example of how a subaltern activist inhabiting the beleaguered zones of the Empire can not only speak against injustice and racist barbarism, but also write in a militantly engaged, provocative way on behalf of the satisfaction of human needs through popular, democratic, egalitarian governance. Our task is to acknowledge this example by word and deed.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. (1977), Manifesto of the Communist Party. Moscow:
William I. Robinson. (2008). Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization
Perspective. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
PETER McLAREN is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Commerce. Four of McLaren’s books have won the Critic’s Choice Award of the American Education Studies Association. One of his books, Life in Schools, was chosen in 2004 as one of the 12 most significant education books in existence worldwide by an international panel of experts organized by The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and by the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation. McLaren was the inaugural recipient of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Award presented by Chapman University, California. The Charter for La Fundacion Peter McLaren de Pedagogia Critica (The Peter McLaren Foundation of Critical Pedagogy)was signed at the University of Tijuana, July, 2004. La Catedra Peter McLaren (The Peter McLaren Chair) was inaugurated in Venezuela in September 15, 2006, as part of a joint effort between El Centro Internacional Miranda and La Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.—###