Learning in a 'movement moment'

To transform our relations amongst ourselves and with our planet, we must be hell-bent on a praxis that confronts our own limitations, and that is committed to the revolutionary potential of learning.

Sara Carpenter
27 February 2017

Women's March, Washington. Lafargue Damien/ABACA ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Women's March, Washington. Lafargue Damien/ABACA ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Recent mobilisations in North America have captured global attention; I am referring, specifically, to the Black Lives Matter movement, the encampment at Standing Rock and the broader resistance to both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, and the ongoing protests against the new American administration. Each of these struggles has, in its own way, raised debates about the forms and expressions of political consciousness. For example, debates around intersectional feminism have been key to the platform of Black Lives Matter and were the basis of much critique surrounding the Women’s March. Numerous online discussions take up the question of what it means to be ‘woke’ in today’s political context. Particular forms of political analysis, specifically liberalism, are increasingly called out as insufficient to tackle the mounting violence of dispossession, exploitation, oppression, and white supremacy.

While much of the protest in North America, and around the world, is in response to the American president’s executive orders, for several years now mounting dissent has increasingly taken to the streets, whether it be in response to the ongoing refugee crisis, austerity measures in Europe, or to condemn acts of political and capital imperialist violence around the world. We appear to be entering a ‘movement moment’, or at least one in which protests, boycotts, and divestment are part of a public conversation again. For organisers of these movements, expanding people’s participation is key, but deepening their thinking about the issues is crucial. Without deepening political analysis, movement activists are susceptible to not only cooptation and infiltration, but also seductive reformist agendas that serve to re-imagine forms of oppression. Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th is an excellent example of these tendencies in the American context.

The kind of learning that awakens people to political realities and emboldens them to join a struggle or resist oppression on a collective basis is extremely complex in character. It is not simply a matter of knowing your facts, nor can it thrive solely on the basis of being angry or fed up. It is a process of both individual and collective engagement. This kind of learning requires that what has been understood as 'normal,' and perceived as unchangeable, becomes seen as an impediment to collective survival. Further, it requires the realisation that the types of change necessary can only be accomplished through collective struggle. Through learning based in the political will to transform human relations, we hopefully can come to understand that history is all around us and we are part of history. In other words, learning through struggle has the potential to revolutionise our thinking.

I belong to a community of people who identify as 'critical' educators and in my new book with Shahrzad Mojab, Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism, and Knowledge, we offer a new discussion on the complexities of revolutionary learning. Critical education work happens in every discipline in the academy and beyond the borders of universities as well; we are in schools, communities, social movements, workplaces, unions, shelters, camps, slums, reserves, and streets. The primary concern of critical education, as a body of theory and a pedagogical practice, is political consciousness and revolutionary praxis. Specifically, we attempt to understand how people come to know the world around them and how we might be able to revolutionise our thinking in order to transform the social relations in which we live. The consciousness of people, the way they think about their world, is a concern we share with many. Our aim is the cultivation of a critical praxis that can confront myriad and complex social relations of exploitation and violence. One of our many obstacles in this learning process is ideology.

Ideology, which is often considered as just 'ideas', means something different to me. It is not just ideas, let alone ideas that are relative in relation to power. Ideologies are ways of thinking produced through abstractions. An abstraction, simply put, ignores complexity by isolating a part of a whole so that actual details and history are made invisible. When we produce knowledge through abstraction and obscure history and the interests of power, we produce ideology. People make ideologies when we think, circulate them when we speak, and put them into practice when we teach and when we take action. The more we act as if these ideologies are true, the more we embrace and live within social relationships that are abstracted from the material, connective tissue of society. The more we believe these ideologies or refuse to acknowledge their existence, the easier it becomes to continue to act and live in ways that denigrate and degrade ourselves and each other. The ultimate outcome is to reproduce the very sorts of oppressive social relations we aim to dismantle.

Protesters and the National Guard, Standing Rock, February 2017. Ryan Vizzions/Standing Rock Rising. All rights reserved.

Protesters and the National Guard, Standing Rock, February 2017. Ryan Vizzions/Standing Rock Rising. All rights reserved.From my standpoint, the problem of political consciousness and ideology is not a question of whether one has the 'right' or 'wrong' kind of consciousness, nor is it a question of whether one's consciousness is distorted or false. These characterisations, which have their place in the history of social theory and left organising, are ultimately unable to explain or engage with the complexity of the relations in which we live, in part because they cannot account for what makes ideology feel as if it is true and real. They ignore what makes ideology 'common sense' and what gives it power. Ultimately, these characterisations reinforce the division and fragmentation of social relations that occurs with capitalism. For example, I often remind my students of a central paradox we live every day. At a time when we, perhaps, feel more distant and divided from the rest of humanity, we literally could not eat, drink clean water, clothe our bodies, live in safe homes, or communicate with family who live far away without the careful labour of millions of people we will never meet. We are utterly dependent on others and, at the same time, interdependent. Despite this interdependence, the means to live well and in safety are not shared globally. It takes powerful ideologies to obscure both the contours of this reality as well the challenge that we all experience this world in different ways.

I raised the examples of Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and the ongoing protests such as the Women’s March and those against the travel ban, because each brings us very intimately into relation with the ideologies we must confront in order to engage in deepening political struggle. They also give us clear examples of the challenges ahead of us in terms of the ongoing necessity to understand the history that has brought us to this place and the ways we must think through what is still to come.

As I have watched the protests and discourse emerge out of the US, I have been frustrated by past and repeated mistakes in abstraction. There are several key abstractions that many are quick to make, myself included, and which fundamentally separate us from one another. In this way, they are pernicious because they emerge over and over again and they break our relations with one another. When we study history, we see them. When we listen to the activists who have been walking these roads, often shouting to empty streets, we hear their warnings. When we are confronted by those who have been doing this work, when we get ‘called out’, often what is being asked for is acknowledgement of history and the way those histories have meaning to how we move forward. I agree with many others that some of the critiques of the Women's March should be heard in this way.

A particularly acute example of this is the argument concerning the 'unAmerican-ness' of the new presidential administration. The rallying cry of many relies upon foundational tenets of the liberal American dream. The immigration ban is un-American. The restriction of the press is un-American. The wall is un-American. The brutality of police is un-American. The task of my adult life has been to study history and understand that all of these events, the histories they build upon as well as the ideologies that drive them, are excruciatingly American. They may be unconstitutional or illegal, but they are also the bedrock. That does not make them unimportant or 'historic', that makes them foundational to all that occurs on the surface.

They may be unconstitutional or illegal, but they are also the bedrock.

While some claims to the role of immigration in building the American nation are true, it is also true that the United States is a settler colonial nation. When we appeal to the liberalness of our democracy, we premise this argument on the erasure of the indigenous people of North America, also known as Turtle Island, and the historical reality of how the liberal democratic experiment of the United States came into being. However, it is not enough to recognize this history and engage in acknowledgement. Take for example, Faith Spotted Eagle, member of the Yankton Sioux Nation, who reminds us that one of the important challenges of Standing Rock is “not to reify colonialism” and, for those of us who are not indigenous, "that's their task, to realize that they have that settler mind.” She describes the ways in which those gathered at the camp, under their own terms of ‘solidarity’, have enacted their proprietary relationship with the land and with one another, in some cases physically appropriating tribal lands while in other cases not respecting the leadership of the elders.

Her comments are key to those of us interested in the relationship between learning and political participation. She reminds us that the issue is not just our consciousness, our understanding, or our awareness alone. It is not simply a matter of ‘having’ the analysis or recognising history; it is the material and social relations we forge through our work and the meaning we ascribe to that work. In other words, these relations of struggle constitute our praxis. In this process, we must contend with many inversions, diversions, and mis-directions, many of which are the result of the relation between ideology and our consciousness. As Faith Spotted Eagle says, it is a ‘task’, a real human labour, to address these problems in both our forms of political thought and our action.

The problem here is that it is very difficult to gauge the limits of our own thinking. I would suggest that this can only be done in relation with others. It is only through coming into relation with a way of thinking different from your own, and even more profoundly a way of being, that we can begin to understand the assumptions, premises, and abstractions that have circumscribed our own consciousness. This can only be done from an individual standpoint of humility. The cultivation of these relations are of the utmost importance, including for those of us who are already engaged in ongoing struggles. Confronting ideology is not just for the politically naïve nor is it a messianic activity for the 'woke'. Following the 21 January 2017 Women’s March, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, writing in the Guardian, injected a much-needed perspective on the divisiveness of left discourse. She argued: "when radicals who have already come to some important conclusions about the shortcomings of existing systems mock, deride or dismiss those who have not achieved the same level of consciousness, they are helping no one."

Those who aim to resist not only the current resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia, but the uninterrupted morphology of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, must be utterly committed to the eradication of these relations in both our everyday lives and in our consciousness, including their most insidious, pernicious forms. To transform our relations amongst ourselves and with our planet, we must be hell-bent on a praxis that confronts our own limitations, that is based in generosity and humility, and that is committed to the revolutionary potential of learning. We must think about how we think, together. James Baldwin said it better:

“I feel very strongly, though, that this amorphous people are in desperate search for something which will help them to re-establish their connection with themselves, and with one another. This can only begin to happen as the truth begins to be told. We are in the middle of an immense metamorphosis here, a metamorphosis which will, it is devoutly to be hoped, rob us of our myths and give us our history, which will destroy our attitudes and give us back our personalities. The mass culture, in the meantime, can only reflect our chaos: and perhaps we had better remember that this chaos contains life – and a great transforming energy.” 


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