by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
For citizens of the informed public sphere everywhere, Peter Mclaren needs no introduction. He is one of the world’s most distinguished educators, the key architect of “revolutionary critical pedagogy,” to quote his colleague Paula Allman. His substantial academic record of over 45 books and hundreds of scholarly articles, beginning from his pathbreaking Life in Schools to his epoch-making Che Guevarra, Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of Revolution, is widely known. It unfolds a chronicle of passionate engagement with radical social movements and popular-democratic forces of change spanning over 30 years. It serves as a testimony to an examined life in the service of humanity, in particular “les damnes de la terre.”
“Wretched of the earth,” Frantz Fanon’s rubric for the colonized peoples of the global South, signals what is crucial in McLaren’s new endeavor. It is a point of departure for finessing of the weapons of critical pedagogy in the age of the wars of terror, planetary surveillance, legal torture, genocidal drone assassinations, in this mystifying regime of disaster capitalism. As a leading public intellectual, McLaren seeks a rearming of the collective spirit to explore possibilities for resistance and transformation of social life.
Here we witness a novel turn in McLaren’s career. But it is a dialectical move, negating but also preserving elements of the old in a new configuration. Mclaren began as a school teacher in Canada. After involvement in youth activism and the international protest against the anti-Indochina wars, McLaren earned his doctorate from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. His early rich experience in frontline teaching (1974-79) is intimately documented in Life in Schools. It was followed by his scholarly dissertation on Schooling as a Ritual Performance: Towards a Political Ecoonomy of Educational Symbolos and Gestures (1986).
In his early teaching and research, McLaren’s expertise in critical literacy, ethnography, and curriculum studies reflected his Weberian interest in the politics of consumption and lifestyle identity nuanced with Frankfurt Critical Theory. With the outbreak of of global capitalism’s crisis after the end of the Vietnam War, and the attempt of the neoconservative bloc (Reagan and Thatcher’s reactionary attacks on unions and the social-welfare consensus) to roll back revolutions in Central and South America, as well as in Africa and Asia (support of dictatorships in Chile, the Philippines, apartheid rule in South Africa, etc) until the explosion in 2008, McLaren’s thinking underwent delicate recalibration, if not a subtle retooling of the critical-pedagogy paradigm.
In the trajectory of McLaren’s development, 1994 is marked as the pivotal year of change. His encounter with the ideas and example of Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian thinker, functioned as a heuristic and catalyzing influence. Freire negated the neoliberal hubris of possessive individualism and replaced it with the secular ideal of a community of learners-teachers. Freire’s vision of education as freedom for action was simultaneously realistic, utopian, and self-critical.
This encounter harbored germinal insights for McLaren’s future work. The re-discovery of Jesus of the Gospels as a foundational communist, the origin of the narrative of Christian communism, has given his Marxist humanism a new line of approach in the “war of position” against predatory capitalism. McLaren now wrestles with questions prompted by his synthesis of critical pedagogy as a praxis of class-struggle and a neoGramscian approach to constructing the counter-hegemony of the “wretched of the earth.” He asks: “How can we reclaim Jesus as a fellow communist?… After all, it was not Marx who established the final criterion for judging the authenticity of one’s life as a concern for all peoples in need. It was comrade Jesus. How do we move beyond a new left narrative of redistribution and defence of public services? How do we get up and run an antagonistic social and political paradigm to neoliberalism? How can forms of popular power from below be transferred into a new historical bloc?” These are urgent questions not to be postponed for a future agenda of organic intellectuals.
The application of historical-materialist methodology leads us to “Comrade Jesus.” As Enrique Dussel (in The Ethics of Liberation) has pointed out, we find the ethical criteria of those subjugated by the Empire in the primacy of “corporeal carnality,” the community” and its carnal needs, summed up in Matthew 25: 35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me” (for a feminist angle, see Elisabeth Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone, 1995). In this context, McLaren affirms that Jesus’ “intransigent condemnation of the rich” and the vision/prophecy of a classless society that emerges from the abolition of private property and alienated labor, is a message “grounded in the establishment of justice and life now, at this very moment.”
This detour to the Gospels actually brings us back to the real world of contradictions, to the historicity of lived experience. We rediscover the world of sensuous practice which resolves the classic duality of immanence and transcendence, idealism and materialism, and the historic disjunction of manual and mental labor. Social agency reveals itself in the metabolism of human needs and nature, of congnition and material conditions. We grasp anew the “community of life” where bodies with their potential and actual powers interact with the natural life-world–Marx’s fundamental insights expressed in the 1844 Manuscripts and Grundrisse. A similar experience occurred in the Philippines during the nightmarish U.S.-Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986) when partisans of the movement against U.S. imperialism invented a theology of struggle and organized the Christians for National Liberation. Both lay persons and church workers joined hands with national-democratic movement guerillas in the fight for social justice and genuine sovereignty. “People’s war” waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines since the 1960s articulated a program of structural transformation partly inspired by the Latin American theology of liberation initiated by Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, and others.
In the essay on “Comrade Jesus,” McLaren revitalizes the principles of materialist dialectics with his account of his visit to San Juan Chamula where the indigenous farmers of Mayan lineage now struggle with the Zapatistas. He also celebrates the people’s mobillizations in Detroit and in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for basic rights to water and other vital resources, against corporate greed and cynical bourgeois reforms. They serve as examples of self-management and decolonizing collective praxis. These enduring struggles for food, health care, housing, education, and other basic human rights on an international scale (including the phenomenal Occupy Wall Street insurrection) have now expanded and enriched the revolutionary critical pedagogy that McLaren initiated in the last decades of the last century.
Operating on the terrain of ideological struggle, Mclaren’s militant cultural politics evolves in resonance with the times. It continues to confront state apparatuses of reification, media commodity-fetishism, and networks of power that construct identity/performative subjects. It strives to expose the limits of nihilistic deconstruction, anarchist pragmatism, and the biopolitics of the multitude. His interventions into the embattled sites of popular culture, of common-sensical habitus in the urban life-world colonized by racist-sexist politics of white supremacy, seek to analyze institutional relations of power and their reproduction. McLaren’s vocation has always been to discover opportunities in classroom and community life susceptible to mediation, resistance and transformation. His commitment to advance the project of producing subjects or agencies of liberation empowered with sensuous rationality and reflexive structures of feeling, is vibrantly demonstrated in this new work.
As Paulo Freire noted in his preface to McLaren’s Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture, we are fortunate to become “intellectual cousins” of Mclaren by sharing (through his discourse and his example) the knowledge and skills needed for conscientized participation in changing our world by sharing with, and cooperating in, the struggle of the “wretched of the earth” for our all-encompassing liberation from the barbarism of global capitalism and for the survival of the planet.
—E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Professorial Lecturer, Polytechnic University of the Philippines