Fearless Speech in Fearful Times: An Essay Review of Capitalists and Conquerors, Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism, and Teaching Peter McLaren


Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy against Empire by Peter McLaren (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism: A Critical Pedagogy by Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Teaching Peter McLaren: Paths of Dissent, by Marc Pruyn and Luis M. Huerta-Charles (New York: Peter Lang, 2005)

“If there was any piece of legislation that I could pass it would be to blow up colleges of education.” — Reid Lyon, Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health

“The NEA is a terrorist organization.” — Rod Paige, Former U.S. Secretary of Education

“You tie their teaching methods to standards so that in a very aggressive way they learn to teach to the results of those tests, like a soldier,” Mr. Carnevale says. “The voluntary military didn’t always get the best of human capital. But what you did was make the training so rigorous it didn’t matter.” — Anthony Carnevale, Senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy.

When we first entered our careers in teacher education, we found it rare to identify colleagues who shared our concerns for the future of American democracy and the potential role that schools could play in shaping that future.  Most teacher educators, it seemed, occupied themselves with chasing this year’s model of school reform or teacher education reform as prescribed by any number of different corporate-based or government-sponsored funding agencies (often, the two work in tandem). While we still recognize careerism as the dominant mode of behavior among most teacher educators, the intensification of high-stakes testing and accountability catalyzed by No Child Left Behind, in concert with the increasingly obvious threats to democracy posed by the Bush administration’s policies and the unending parade of scandals accompanying everything touched by this administration, have created new spaces for dialogue between those of us identifying ourselves as critical educational theorists and colleagues who have historically operated out of other traditions.  We are witnessing growing numbers of teacher educators demonstrating a willingness to, at least, consider how schools are implicated in the deterioration of democracy and what we, in our roles as teacher educators, might do to reverse this movement.  More and more teacher educators are coming to agree with Cornel West, who affirmed (with the title of his latest book) that Democracy Matters.

Owing to our own recent involvement with The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, whose founding editor, Takis Fotopoulos, champions the idea of a democratic paideia as the mode of education best suited to meet the demands of responsible citizenship in an authentically democratic society that the United States has never been, we have reacquainted ourselves with the writings of Mortimer J. Adler. In our estimation, few people, particularly those of us in critical educational theory, recognized the truly radical nature of Adler’s ideas and proposals. “What most Americans do not realize or fully appreciate,” wrote Adler in Paideia (1983)

is that political democracy, in these terms, is an innovation in human history that is less than fifty years old.  It came into existence through a series of constitutional amendments and juridical measures that began in the second decade of this century and continued through successive decades until the very recent past. With these legal advances in the direction of political equality and with the expansion of human rights to include economic as well as political rights, social, economic, and political democracy gradually emerged on paper, but it has still not been fully implemented. Much remains for the future to accomplish.  No wonder, then, that a truly democratic program of education in the public and private schools of this country should have lagged behind and still awaits establishment.  Until the commitment to democracy becomes both widely prevalent and genuinely serious and is accomplished by an understanding of its novelty, which is to say its challenge to deeply ingrained prejudices, the appeal to make basic schooling democratic could not succeed.1

Furthermore, Adler was no blind optimist. He understood perfectly well that “We have not always been honest in our commitment to democracy and its promise of equality.”2 We can only imagine how he would respond to our current state of affairs.  The fact that Adler recognized the half-heartedness of our commitment to democracy in the early 1980s helps us better appreciate the fact that the Bush administration did not start any new trend; it has only intensified the patterns that were deeply ingrained in our history.  Though he struggled to remain optimistic in developing The Paideia Proposal as a Dewey-inspired manifesto for an educational program that would, first and foremost, serve the interests of advancing democracy, Adler would have been hard-pressed to disagree with Cornel West’s explanation of why “[t]he American democratic experiment is unique in human history.”  This experiment is unique, West asserts,

not because we are God’s chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history. This sentimental flight from history — or adolescent escape from painful truths about ourselves — means that even as we grow old, grow big, and grow powerful, we have yet to grow up.

Liberating ourselves from these adolescent deceptions, will require, as Adler has argued, a “widely prevalent and genuinely serious” commitment to democracy.  This commitment, however, also demands us to understand that

[d]emocracy is always a movement of an energized public to make elites responsible — it is at its core and most basic foundation the taking back of one’s power in face of the misuse of elite power.  In this sense, democracy is more a verb than a noun — it is more a dynamic striving and collective movement than a static order or stationary status quo.  Democracy is not just a system of governance, as we tend to think of it, but a cultural way of being.  This is where the voices of our great democratic truth tellers come in.3

Even within the circles of critical educational theorists, where many of strive to play this role of “democratic truth tellers,” few figures epitomize that role as provocatively as Peter McLaren.

Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire and Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism: A Critical Pedagogy (co-authored with Ramin Farahmandpur)

For more than twenty years, McLaren’s voice has echoed with what West identifies as “three crucial traditions [that] fuel deep democratic energies”:

  1. the Socratic commitment to questioning,
  2. the prophetic commitment to justice, and
  3. the tragicomic commitment to hope.4

His latest offerings, Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy against Empire and Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism: A Critical Pedagogy (co-authored with Ramin Farahmandpur), do not deviate from that pattern.  Each of these books finds McLaren at his Socratic, prophetic, and tragicomic best. The Socratic McLaren has always demonstrated a remarkable capacity for fearless speech — parrhesia — that has never failed to unsettle, unnerve, and unhouse educationalists from their uncritical sleepwalking; and wherever the Socratic McLaren travels, the prophetic McLaren is never far behind, carrying the tragicomic McLaren’s language in tow.

The Socratic McLaren

In both Capitalists and Conquerors and Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism, McLaren embraces the Socratic commitment to questioning so vital to any democratic society and yet so eschewed for too long by too many educationalists whose uncritical careerism of chasing the test scores and the research dollars has landed us in a situation where we can no longer be certain of the survival of public education, much less the future direction it may take.  Furthermore, their lack of critical questioning incapacitates educationalists from recognizing that the forces threatening the very survival of public education stem from the same sources that now threaten the survival of democracy, not only in America but around the world, as well as the survival of the planet.  Following McLaren’s example, we can recognize the common source and linkages between these threats only if we radically commit ourselves to the great Greek tradition of Socratic questioning, which includes, as West points out, the “questioning of ourselves, of authority, of dogma, of parochialism, and of fundamentalism.” On this point, we must be absolutely clear that when we say radical, we mean radical.  Though the term has been cast as a pejorative, the Oxford English Dictionary defines radical as “going to the root or origin; touching or acting upon what is essential and fundamental; thorough.”  Hence, for those who might say that McLaren is “too radical,” we must assume they mean that he comes too close to the root of the problems he addresses.  If this is so, we must ask ourselves what would be the point of merely questioning around the edges?  What would be the point of not questioning to the core?

Certainly, Socratic questioning has never been for the feint of heart, which explains its connections with parrhesia — fearless speech.  But the fear of questioning undermines the most fundamental of democratic commitments and places us on a proverbial “slippery slope” toward either benign sophistry, where thought and speech contribute to the reproduction of injustices and oppression through errors of omission or aversion, or malignant sophistry, where speech and thought serve one’s own selfish interests by serving the interests of power.  While we would submit that educationalists within the academy have committed far more of the former than the latter, they have not done enough to expose and confront the latter as it has assaulted the conditions for a democratic education over the past three decades.

The radical, Socratic McLaren points the direction for overcoming these deficiencies by fearlessly targeting his questions to challenge what West identifies as three dominating dogmas posing the greatest threats to democracy in the fearful era of our present:

  1. market fundamentalism,
  2. rising militarism accompanying imperialism, and
  3. rising authoritarianism

Market Fundamentalism

Though always associated with the neo-Marxist tradition within educational theory, and though his first open embrace of Marxist analysis appeared in 2000 with the publication of Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution, the appearance of Capitalists and Conquerors and Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism marks McLaren’s most fully articulated Marxist critique of the antidemocratic forces plaguing education and democracy, including and especially market fundamentalism. “Never before,” McLaren and Farahmandpuhr argue, “has a Marxist analysis of capitalism been so desperately needed than at this particular juncture in history” (p. 15).  The expansion of neoliberal economic measures that continue to “roll back” the state’s power in facilitating social welfare in favor of strengthening the state’s servitude to corporate welfare, coupled with the collapse of Soviet states, accelerated the diminishment of Marxist scholarship.  “Capitalism,” McLaren and Farahmandpuhr state, “has never been so blindly infatuated with the myth of its own success. Corporate leaders in the United States and dominant media have inured us into accepting the capitalist marketplace as the only possible social reality” (p. 16).  Without denying “the crimes against humanity committed by regimes claiming to be the heirs of Marx” (p. 19), and while admitting that “Marxist theory may be out of fashion” (p. 20), they do not view Marxism as having “run out of conceptual fuel for providing the kind of analysis urgently needed at this point in the history of capitalism” (p. 20).

In “After the Box People: The Labor-Capital Relation as Class-Constitution and Its Consequences for Marxist Educational Theory and Human Resistance,” an essay in Capitalists and Conquerors coauthored with Paula Allman and Glenn Rikowski, McLaren calls upon Marxism’s remaining “conceptual fuel” to argue that “[t]he violent relation at the heart of our social world is the capital relation, the struggle between labor and capital that is everywhere” (emphases original, p. 135).  Drawing upon Werner Bonefeld‘s work, McLaren, Allman, and Rikowski present class theory as

an aspect of the exploration of the constitution of capitalism that is premised upon a project for its abolition.  It is an integral part of Marxism as a theory against capitalist society, and not just a theory of it. Class theory is therefore concerned with the abolition of class (Marx’s position) and the opening up of human history from the desolation of its prehistory. (p. 139)

We would submit that it requires courage to draw and build upon anything associated with Marx, particularly anything from Marx as full of parrhesia as class theory, to question and challenge market fundamentalism.  At the same time, however, we would point out to readers that the forces that contributed most heavily to the demonization of Marx’s name and ideas in the 1950s and beyond have now undertaken to demonize even the most anemic notions of liberalism.  Not coincidentally, or course, we can best understand those forces through the application of the same class theory that they strive to repress, not through rational lines of argumentation, but through the inculcation of irrational fears and hatred.  Those forces find the origins of their political power in the concentration of capital housed in such corporate foundations as the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Scaife Foundations, and others.  These foundations have used their class power to create such right-wing institutes and think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Federalist Society (among many, many others) to wage an all-out campaign of ideological warfare against the public and its claims to state protection from the social, political, economic, and ecological inequities grounded in the labor-capital relation. Hence, we cannot fail to conclude that the ultimate ends of contemporary neoliberal and neoconservative educational reforms are to strengthen the capital relation at the expense of democracy and the public interest.  In contrast to the democratic value of autonomy, the market’s labor-capital relation privileges the value of heteronomy, or subservience to external authority stemming from dependence on external authority.  We hear this heteronomy expressed regularly by teachers who, knowing full well that contemporary school reforms imposed under No Child Left Behind run counter to the value of education as a public good, refuse to speak or act out against those reforms for fear of losing their jobs.   In an authentically democratic society, the 1st Amendment right to free speech would not stop at the workplace door.  Rather, free speech would function as a vital element within the workplace.  But the inherent heteronomy within the capital relation contradicts and denies any such expression of autonomy on the part of labor.  Only labor must be held accountable, while capital is left free to exploit every opportunity to increase the power and reach of its dominion.

Rising Militarism Accompanying Imperialism

McLaren recognizes and emphasizes that the corporatist assault on the public and democracy does not limit itself to domestic incarnations of the capital relation.  Exploiting every opportunity to increase the power and reach of its dominion demands the retrenchment of the capital relation abroad as well.  One of the most important insights offered by McLaren and Farahmandpuhr lies in their observations on how the notion of “globalization represents an ideological façade that camouflages the manifold operations of imperialism. In fact,” they continue,

the concept of globalization has effectively replaced the term “imperialism” in the lexicon of the privileged class for exaggerating the global character of capitalism — as an all-encompassing and indefatigable power that apparently no nation state has the means to resist or oppose.  Furthermore, it deceitfully suggests that capitalism no longer needs the protection of the nation-state. (p. 39)

As Gabbard has argued elsewhere (2004), capital has always regarded the role of government in terms of the security state, “securing” the capital relation at home while expanding its reach abroad.  And it is precisely against this background that we can best appreciate McLaren’s growing relationship with the administration of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as that country seeks to avoid “preemptive” military strikes from the Bush administration for the sin of seeking economic and political independence from the capital relation as it has always manifest itself under imperialism.

Peter McLaren and Ernesto Cardenal
Peter McLaren with Ernesto Cardenal in Venezuela

It’s also against this background that we can best understand the inspiration that McLaren has recently drawn from the revolutionary figure and anti-imperialist ideas of Che Guevara.  Though both books give excellent expression to McLaren’s radical questioning of militarism and imperialism as manifest in US foreign policies historically, a number of the essays in Capitalists and Conquerors shed particularly brilliant light on the most recent examples of those patterns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of special importance in this regard, McLaren points out in “The Dialectics of Terrorism” that

As Bush moves toward the creation of a permanent war, the Left is faced with powerful challenges.  One of these is to move beyond a narrow anti-U.S. imperialism and to get on with the crucial business of class struggle against monopoly capitalism. . . . In this sense, we need to move away from an anti-Westernism and get on with the task of supporting class struggle in the interests of creating a new human society. Remaining critical of U.S. foreign and economic policies is important but in our practice of criticism we need to avoid falling into a reactionary anti-Americanism.  Instead, it is important to set our sights on the struggle against monopoly capitalism, which is, after all, the root of imperialism. (pp. 249-250)

Rising Authoritarianism

Apart from the inherent authoritarianism within the capital relation described above, we find McLaren’s most explicit discussion of rising authoritarianism and its origins in a chapter in Capitalists and Conquerors coauthored with Nathalia E. Jaramillo tragicomically titled: “God’s Cowboy Warrior: Christianity, Globalization, and the False Prophets of Imperialism” (pp. 261-333).  At the front of the chapter, McLaren and Jaramillo quote George Herbert Walker Bush as saying, “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are” (p. 261). Bush, Sr.’s message is clear.  If he doesn’t care about the facts, neither should we. Characteristic of the adolescent arrogance addressed earlier in observations cited from Cornel West, an essential element of American exceptionalism summed up by Bush, Sr. above grew to monstrous proportions in the neoconservative doctrine advanced under George W. Bush, now accompanied by the public ideological commitment to the outright fascist belief that the American government derives its authority from God.  We say “fascist” because, as it is well known, Hitler and Mussolini also manipulated and harnessed religious authority to their cause, as typified by the fact that the belt-buckles of Nazi soldiers were imprinted with the words “Gott ist mit uns” (God is with us). “Under the sign of the Stars and Stripes,” write McLaren and Jaramillo, “the war against terrorism unchains the attack dogs of the New World Order in defense of civilization. In the process, the United States has crossed the threshold of militant authoritarianism and goose-stepped onto the global balcony of neofascism, befouling the Constitution along the way” (p. 261).

They link this “militant authoritarianism” to two interdependent sources.  First, they provide a useful account of neoconservative ideology as articulated by Leo Strauss and as embraced by influential figures in and around the Bush administration (e.g., Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Abraham Shulsky, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Rupert Murdoch [owner of News Corp — one of the world’s largest media conglomerates that includes FOX News], Francis Fukuyama, William Kristol, Clarence Thomas, William Bennett, and others). While Strauss “considered democracy ‘an act against nature’ [that] must be prevented at all costs’,” he did view it as essential for democratic forms to be used to defeat democratic practice.  To ensure this, he preached the use of the “noble lie” as advocated in Plato’s Republic.  Here we find the second source of authoritarianism identified by McLaren and Jaramillo; namely fundamentalist Christianity.  Not only does the exploitation of fundamentalists’ cultural conservatism through the use of such wedge issues as abortion and gay marriage serve the advantage of the neoconservative electoral politics by allowing Republicans to present themselves as God’s party, it also promotes authoritarian tendencies to equate the authority of government with the authority of God.  To challenge government, provided that it’s controlled by God’s party, is tantamount to challenging God, as if preemptive wars leading to wanton destruction and murder reflect God’s will and not the will of the corporate interests most directly served by plans outlined in the Holy Grail of neoconservative foreign policy: the Project for a New American Century.  To challenge any of this casts one as anti-American, anti-Christian, unpatriotic, and even uncivilized.  Under the new authoritarianism, “you are either with us, or you are against us.”

The Prophetic & Tragicomic McLaren

Nowhere does McLaren even flinch in his radical, Socratic questioning of market fundamentalism and how it has given birth to a rising militarism accompanying a new imperialism along with rising authoritarianism.  Neither does he back away from giving voice to the “the Jewish invention of the prophetic commitment to justice — for all peoples” (West, p. 16).  Both Capitalists and Conquerors and Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism contain innumerable examples of his willingness to decry the injustices caused by the capitalist relation in the many forms that it takes.

As we said before, where the prophetic McLaren travels, the tragicomic McLaren does follow.  West associates the tragicomic commitment with “hope, as demonstrated most remarkably by the great African-American traditions of the blues and jazz that manifest a remarkable ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy — to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hatred and hypocrisy — as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair” (p. 16).  Even in his prophetic denunciations of injustice, McLaren’s tragicomic use of language inspires our hope by helping us retain our own ability to laugh in the face of our pain.  Without this ability to inspire hope, we would find it impossible to explain even the appearance of the third book addressed in this review.

Teaching Peter McLaren: Paths of Dissent, by Marc Pruyn and Luis M. Huerta-Charles

To explain the appearance of this book, we must first acknowledge the status of Peter McLaren as one of the most recognizable names in critical educational theory. As Paul Robinson once wrote of Noam Chomsky in the New York Times Book Review, “judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” Likewise, there is little doubt that, “judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought,” Peter McLaren is arguably the most important educational theorist (critical or otherwise) alive.  As Alicia de Alba and Marcela Gonzalez Arenas state so beautifully in Chapter 4, “Educators today can stand with McLaren or against him, but not without him” (p. 55).

The same argument could be made for other leading critical educators.  But it is hard to imagine a book written in such a personal and intimate way to be published on other educators within the critical tradition. To explain the appearance of this book, then, we must look beyond McLaren’s stature as an intellectual.  We must appreciate something far more personal about him — namely, the relationships he cultivates with others.

Peter McLarenAs Alipio Casali & Ana Maria Aaujo Freire so accurately describe him, “it is impossible not to notice Peter McLaren in the middle of a crowd, much as it is impossible not to be completely drawn in by his image: the extravagance of his mode of dress, his disheveled hair, his tattoos, his quick, sudden gestures, his attentive manner and luminous aura” (p. 21).  In keeping with Casali and Freire’s warning against looking at people superficially, however, Shirley Steinberg tells us in her Foreword to the book: we should “never underestimate [McLaren’s] loyalty and devotion to students, colleagues, social justice and to making this stage larger and just a bit more tolerable.” Antonia Darder admits that she “did not easily warm up to the man,” even though she “appreciated [McLaren’s] rhetorical gift, unusual language and powerful writings.” After coming to know him better, however, she grew to regard him as “one of the kindest and most generous souls that I have ever met in the world of academia. Yes, like so many of us pitiful humans, he forever struggles with personal questions of insecurity and self-doubt — but like few, he is ever willing to extend a hand and create opportunities for comrades and struggling young scholars who seek his support.”

As young scholars themselves, the book’s editors — Marc Pruyn and Luis M. Huerta-Charles — attest to the humanity that McLaren brings to his work and the network of solidarity he inspires, recognizing in him something akin to Che Guevara’s ability to inspire admiration for his person at the same time he stirred populist action against oppression. To quote Pruyn,

Che speaks to us.  He speaks to us through his living revolutionary example of solidarity, internationalism, optimism, populism, and activism; through his living radical praxis. Che did not only espouse the socialist ideal of the “new person,” he embodied it; like Paulo Freire, Sojourner Truth, Miles Horton, Emma Goldman and Peter McLaren. Che is a beacon on the left, a rallying Marxist foghorn, especially in these times of neo-liberalism, structural adjustment and super-exploitation. Peter serves the same function on the educational left.

Perhaps Roberto Bahruth best conveys these inspirational qualities of McLaren’s writings and character in these dark times when he writes: “Now, more than ever, I find myself in need of a strong voice, and I look to Peter.”

1 M. Adler, Paideia Problems and Possibilities, (New York: MacMillan, 1983), p. 10.

2 M. Adler, The Paideia Proposal (New York: MacMillan, 1982). p.10.

3 C. West, Democracy Matters, p. 68.

4 C. West, p. 16.

David Gabbard is a professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at East Carolina University’s College of Education. He has authored or edited five books in the areas of critical education policy studies and the history of educational thought. His most recent books include Michel Foucault and Power Today: International Multidisciplinary Studies on the History of Our Present (edited with Alain Beaulieu, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005); Defending Public Schools, Vol. I: Education Under the Security State (edited with E. Waytne Ross, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004); Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Knowledge & Power in the Global Economy: Politics and the Rhetoric of School Reform (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishing, 2000).

Karen Anijar is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University. She is the co-editor of the Journal of Public Resistance (with David Gabbard). Her most recent books include Culture and the Condom (edited by Thuy DaoJensen, NY: Peter Lang, 2005), Science Fiction Curriculum, CyborgTeachers, and Youth Culture(s) (edited by John Weaver and Toby Daspit, NY: Peter Lang, 2003), and Teaching towards the 24th Century: the Social Curriculum of Star Trek (NY: Taylor and Francis, 2001).