Sergio Quiroz Miranda, Director of Instituto McLaren, and Peter McLaren in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, protesting the disappearance of forty-three male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College after being forcibly abducted in Iguala, Guerrero.
Peter McLaren is one of the educators who has worked on the development and consolidation of critical pedagogy for more than 40 years. His critical analyses have supported educators around the world to understand that their practices are permeated by political and social visions of which they often remain unaware. As Paolo Freire showed the world, and McLaren continues to do, education is not neutral, and we must direct our practices towards the search for social justice, equity, and we should fight against all forms of discrimination and oppression, including the recent emergence of fascism.
McLaren continues battling to build, as Freire used to say, a less ugly world and transform it into a more just one. Throughout the year 2022, Peter undertook a commitment to analyse the war Russia generated by invading Ukraine and to consider its implications for the world. This interview addresses McLaren’s views on the war in Ukraine, education, Marxism, Christianity and the decay of US politics.
Luis Huerta-Charles is an associate professor of critical pedagogies and multicultural education in the School of Teacher Preparation, Administration and Leadership in the College of Health, Education and Social Transformation at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces, on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The interview has six parts:
- The War in Ukraine
- Fascism and the Decay in American Politics
- Gun Culture Warriors
- Marxism and Socialism
- Marxism and Catholicism
- The Death Knell of Education
Part I: The War in Ukraine
Luis: On February 24, 2023, the war in Ukraine reached a year of its development. During this time, we have seen contradictions in the reactions of US politicians, some representatives and senators from the extreme right wing. They are basically calling to stop the support to Ukraine. Others from the left have supported Putin’s invasion. What is your perspective regarding this?
Peter: The war in Ukraine has been acceleratingly bad, devastating to Ukraine, to Russia and to the entire world. Unfortunately, in the US, support for Putin among the grievance-laden ‘campist’ left has had an outsized influence. It is hardly a one-dimensional war and admittedly a very asymmetrical one, with the US remaining unmatched in military might and prowess, and thus able to provide sophisticated high-calibre weaponry to its ally. Of course, Russia holds the Trump card (no pun intended) of boasting the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, igniting years of cultivated fear worldwide.
Luis: From that view, it can be considered a US proxy war.
Peter: Yes, it can be described as a US proxy war, and while NATO bears significant culpability, I support Ukraine and its right to defend itself on the battlefield by acquiring weapons from European countries and the US if it so chooses to make such a consequential determination for its survival as a sovereign, independent state. Of course, diplomatic efforts in bringing forth a consensual peace and establishing a mutually agreed upon security order for both sides have become paramount, and paths for ending the war must be part of a step-change – a heel turn – and pursued vigorously instead of relying on the usual cultivated swindles of statecraft. Those who so quickly put the blame on the US and NATO (whether or not we should use the term ‘campism’ to help us understand the politics behind these efforts will be debated for some time) have forgotten that this war is also about preserving the principles of sovereign equality and the political independence of nation-states. Such principles are fundamental to international socialists and often get lost in the fog of debate. Consequently, many factions among the Western left and much of the South American left come dismayingly and perilously close to justifying Russia’s acquisition of territory through aggression based upon Putin’s false premises that there is an urgent necessity to complete the purification process consisting of Ukraine’s de-Nazification and its exorcism of Ole Scratch. (Well, Mr Putin, you can start this process by looking in your own backyard). Whatever the truth may be regarding Ukrainian oppression of Russian-speaking minorities of the Donetsk region, it in no way justifies bombings of cities, with thousands of civilian victims, including elderly people, women and children – the creation of a Hobbesian world order. It does not justify a war of terror – a conflagration of horrors – waged by a powerful neighbouring country that can justifiably be described as imperialist, who uses tactics of torture and the mass murder of civilians.
Luis: Connected to the idea of a proxy war, it seems that the dominant economic and power relationships of the US in the world have become fragile; could It be possible that this war was slowly, in stages, created for the interests of the US?
Peter: Yes, to a certain extent. But it was Putin who decided to invade Ukraine. We cannot forget the major aggressor in this war. But the US has already admitted to using the war in Ukraine to weaken Russia. All that being said, I support a multipolar world and support Ukraine’s quest for sovereignty within such a world. It remains quite clear to me that the world is suffering from the external imposition of exchange relations upon workers; after all, abstract labour is the substance of value, and those of us on the left, including leftist groups in Ukraine, are struggling for a set of social relations not set up to augment value but to bring into existence a new society which nurtures what Hudis calls ‘intersubjective connections between freely associated individuals.’ Hudis emphasises this point by quoting from the Grundrisse:
The general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would, from the outset, make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include, from the beginning, the individual’s participation in the communal world of products. […] Labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating.
We need to build a world of freely associated labour where the producers themselves decide how ‘to make, distribute and consume the total social product.’ Ukraine deserves a chance to achieve this. Ukraine is hardly a socialist society; it is quite corrupt. I don’t support its crony capitalism or its oligarchic aspects. But I support those socialist groups in Ukraine who seek cooperative forms of production and distribution that will be collectively planned through democratic and cooperative forms of decision-making and organising; when products will cease to assume a value form, and exchange value and universalised commodity production will vanish into the bloody annals of history. This will lead to a ‘new mode of conceiving, relating to and organising time’ – all of which Marx ruminates about in Volume 1 of Capital. This is something that we, too, should ponder deeply. Of course, all this is compounded by the fact that, under capitalism, we have outsourced our human nature to machines. We all have many battles to fight with capitalism.
Luis: What are the red lines that Ukraine’s allies must respect beyond which the full and legitimate defence of Ukrainian sovereignty can be deemed null and void? The delivery of tanks, fighter jets, long-range missiles capable of reaching Moscow?
Peter: This is a legitimate question, and, in my view, Ukraine has a right to acquire weapons for its defence from wherever it can. Those who disagree must understand the consequences of abandoning Ukraine to the military might of Russia and consider those consequences against the prospect of nuclear war. This is a debate that we urgently need to have. Can we condemn US imperialist foreign policy but at the same time stand by as Putin dissolves Ukraine’s nationhood for fear of his nuclear arsenal? When will such fear end if Putin decides to absorb other countries against their will? Could Russia’s invasion have been stopped, had the US given Russia a guarantee that NATO would not extend to its borders? Very unlikely, but it was worth a try. This is a story of broken promises. In any case, is that a reason to give Russia a carte blanche guarantee we will not interfere in its slaughter? Yes, of course, we know that Ukraine is riven with corruption, and, as leftists, we have denounced its neoliberal politics, its often stereotyped image of Western society and, of course, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion. And we know that the war is a gift to the war profiteers and that petroleum extraction by Western oil companies can now proceed apace, virtually unabated, with no concern for environmental consequences. But as a socialist, I must denounce Russia’s longstanding contempt for the right of Ukraine to self-determination. I must do more than say (as many leftists do so they can have it both ways) that Ukraine has a legitimate reason to defend itself. I need to make a commitment to support Ukraine in its popular national struggle for self-determination, in its war of national liberation, as any respectable socialist would do, despite the fact that the war has a backdrop of inter-imperialist conflict between Russia and the US. We need to remember that the US has its own imperialist interests in this war, but neither the US nor NATO has invaded Ukraine, but Russia has! I cannot justify remaining passive, especially upon reading the report from the Prosecutor General’s Office that revealed that Russia’s attacks across Ukraine have, to date, killed at least 461 children.
I agree with the following assessment of Eric Draitser, who writes, ‘while it’s self-evident that NATO expansion was imperialist, it’s also true that much of the US motivation was rooted not in targeting Russia but in absorbing the post-Soviet militaries of Eastern Europe into NATO (along with their hardware) in order to use them in far-flung operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Poland and Ukraine rank fourth and fifth in combat deaths in Iraq, for example.’ Draitser goes on to describe the war in Ukraine as a Russian ‘imperial, revanchist, neocolonial war.’ He points out that ‘[f]rom regarding much of Ukraine as ‘historically Russian land’ to identifying it with Orthodox Christianity, Putin is quite openly declaring that Ukraine does not, in fact, have a right to exist. Or, to the extent that it does, it is exclusively Catholic, Western Ukraine, with the rest of the country belonging to Russia and Orthodoxy. What do you call a war that has as its explicit goal the erasure of an entire nation? Supremacist? Genocidal? Colonial? Take your pick.’ Draitser goes on to say, unflinchingly, that
Seen from this perspective, perhaps we can finally ‘make sense’ of Russia’s ‘senseless’ criminal attacks on civilian infrastructure, such as Ukraine’s energy system, which Amnesty International, along with every other human rights body, describes as war crimes. Similarly, one can understand why Putin seems so cavalier about holding Europe’s biggest nuclear plant hostage, risking a catastrophic nuclear accident, since it would most acutely affect Ukrainians, who don’t really matter anyway. Likewise, we now can understand the attacks on Ukraine’s cultural institutions, including art and science museums, because a nation that has no right to exist surely has no right to its own unique culture. For Putin, Ukrainian culture is a figment of the Bolshevik imagination. (I’ve written about this erasure of Ukrainian identity elsewhere.) And, naturally, a people who do not exist have no rights.
Luis: Do you think that the presence of NATO moving closer to Russia’s borders contributed to the conflict?
Peter: The movement East of NATO had deleterious consequences, and Eastern European governments who initially were fine with participating in the Partnership for Peace program as a compromise to NATO membership, eventually added enough pressure on the US to allow them to join NATO. They managed to get Article 5 extended to them as they were becoming understandably more concerned about increasing attacks from Russia. The gravity of the potential threat by Russia against Ukraine made it impossible to include them in NATO’s 1994 open-door policy. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was never given the authority by Russia to monitor its borders with Ukraine. Admittedly, the US-Ukrainian Strategic Partnership of November 2021, which held out the prospect of Ukraine becoming a heavily armed US ally in all but name, while continuing to threaten to retake the Donbas by force, did not help matters.
So yes, we know what happened. What we don’t know is if Ukraine has the capacity to be successful in driving wave after wave of Russian soldiers back beyond its borders, despite the exponential growth of the US military-industrial complex, bloated beyond recognition, and its willingness to assist Ukraine. As far as arms go, as Nate Moore (2023) pointed out, ‘Lenin (1916; 1918) defended the right of nations engaged in anti-imperialist struggles to receive arms from other imperialist powers.’
Opposing arms for Ukraine would assure a crushing defeat for Ukraine by a country whose missiles and drones are killing civilian men, women and children. I highly doubt that this would lead to ‘peace negotiations’ but rather to more bloodshed and the end of Ukraine as a sovereign entity, a foreclosure of Ukraine’s statehood. Why am I thinking of Neville Chamberlain and the word ‘appeasement’? A peace deal that is true to its name would require Russia to remove its troops from the borders of Ukraine. Can there be peace while Russia is launching missiles at civilian neighbourhoods and electrical grids in the cold of winter, in a sham ‘special military operation’? Putin himself has said that Ukraine is an artificial country with no claim to independent statehood, which is tantamount to rejecting the legitimacy of former Soviet republics, admonishing Lenin for allowing them self-determination in the nascent years of the USSR. The anti-communist Putin is turning back the clock, not to the days of Soviet Communism (when the Red Army [composed of many Ukrainians, let’s not forget] was able to turn the tide of WWII against the Nazis), but to Tsarist Russia.
Luis: So, from that perspective, we can say that Putin is going back to trying to establish a neo-Imperial state, a neo-Imperial-Russia.
Peter: Putin is leading a sub-imperial state in waging a neocolonial war, complete with attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure; he is bent on destroying a country that he believes does not deserve to exist – and many on the US left are providing Putin cover by solely or mainly focusing on the egregious crimes of NATO and US imperialism. The struggle over Donbas in eastern Ukraine was generated by Putin’s desire to re-establish ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia), but some on the Western far-left have attributed this conflict to Ukraine’s so-called systematic extermination of the Donbas population. There is no evidence for that, and it has been subsequently used as a cover for Russian support for separatist movements there.
Historical revisionism aside, Putin’s justification for the erasure of Ukraine and its imposition of neo-colonial control must, I believe, be countered by the Marxist principle of international solidarity with Ukraine’s right to self-determination. I do not look forward to the strengthening of reactionary forces worldwide, should Putin succeed. What cannot be underestimated is the influential role of the Eastern Orthodox Church under the rule of Patriarch Kirill. As I have said previously, we are remiss if we fail to understand why so many right-wing fascists and neo-Nazis in America are ideologically and emotionally drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which includes the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). We need only examine the behaviour of Patriarch Kirill, leader of Russia’s dominant religious group and a close friend of Putin. If one supports national liberation, one supports Ukraine receiving arms from wherever it can. It is not up to the USA to make that demand: it is up to the Ukrainians. They have a right to make such a demand. If they choose to get arms from elsewhere, that is their decision too. There is no militarised regime in the world that is not entangled in the capitalist web of imperialist power interests. Ukraine is a national liberation movement that, by necessity, must obtain arms from other capitalist regimes.
Many European leaders flew to Moscow to beg Putin not to invade Ukraine but discuss/negotiate instead. NATO had already said that Ukraine does not qualify for membership in it, and Zelensky said Ukraine would not apply to join NATO. What did Putin do? He invaded anyway. He will only accept a peace plan that allows Russia’s conquests since 2/24/22 to remain part of Russia. The Ukraine national resistance movement might agree to negotiations in time, and that is their right and business. But there is no sign from Russia that it is willing to accept Ukrainian self-determination. Russia is worried about democracy on its borders, which is why it invaded Kazakhstan and Belarus, where NATO is nowhere to be found.
I have argued many times, including in my book on the war in Ukraine, the US did expand NATO up to the borders of Russia when, in fact, there was no longer any need for NATO to exist after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But arms manufacturers saw massive profits in making former Soviet Bloc countries upgraded militarily to NATO standards (thanks to the ‘generosity’ of loans provided by US arms manufacturers), and they needed an enemy in order to do so, and we know the outcome of that story which goes by the name ‘Cold War.’ One needs only to look at the stock market and the arms manufacturers that are making incredible profits while Ukrainian civilians are literally flying head over heels as targets of Russian artillery fire.
It is clear that the integration of neighbouring countries into US-led military partnerships – bringing NATO to the doorstep of Russia – has helped fuel the crisis. And we can understand the security threat that the US-backed NATO alliance poses to Russia, especially when Ukraine is also increasing its commercial ties with the European Union.
Luis: Understanding the apparent ‘invisible’ interference of NATO in the war, the left should not trample the right of the people of Ukraine to self-determination.
Peter: I agree, yes, the left should not trample on the right of peoples to self-determination since, in doing so, you accede to the right of imperial forces to attack and annex other countries and, in so doing, open the door for other countries to be made into part of Russia’s national patrimony. At the same time, it would be perilously wrong to believe that NATO is a viable unipolar option for maintaining peace in a multipolar world at a time of severe capitalist crisis. Clearly, NATO should have been disbanded decades ago and autonomy given to European countries to form their own means of geopolitical cooperation around issues of defence and protecting their own territories. Putin has just given the US a geopolitical opportunity to reassert itself in Europe and has made the United Nations much more ineffectual. NATO is much stronger as a result, especially when Sweden joins (Finland has already joined). NATO’s imperial sphere of influence has grown larger. It has been raised from the dead and once again walks the earth like a spectre of destruction. There is much hypocrisy here, once we shed our motivated amnesia surrounding the history of NATO. Can NATO function otherwise? That’s why we need to remember Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Kosovo … and the list goes on. What other options are available for security against Russia? These are debates we need to have. But this in no way suggests to me that we should not support Ukraine simply because it is now being supported by a major imperialist power. That is a kind of ‘campism’ that has infected much of the Western left: ‘We support Putin because the US supports Ukraine.’ It will be more disastrous for the world should Putin win this war. And I don’t think Putin will stop at Ukraine. Labour is suffering as a result of this war, and the oligarchs and the far right are gaining support across Europe and North America.
While many on the American left have come to regard the EuroMaidan Revolution as stage-managed by the US to acquire geopolitical and geo-economic advantages in its goal of weakening Russia, I regard this as an overstatement. Was it a coup coordinated with Ukrainian Nazis by US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, or was it fundamentally a national democratic revolution? I refer to it as the latter. Others describe it as a far-right coup d’état, painting Yanukovych as a good guy who was not in the pocket of Putin. Not fully, anyway.
Yes, I can see how some critics of US imperialism might regard the Maidan Revolution as a US coup, given the infamous Nuland‐Pyatt telephone conversation, which showed these two US officials attempting to exploit the outcome of the violent protests in the interests of US geopolitical hegemony. President Viktor Yanukovych left Kyiv as a result of the Euromaidan protests, and that sparked the Ukrainian Parliament to vote to remove him from office on February 22, 2014. But what happened on February 22 was the position of a large majority of the Parliament, which was, in turn, supported by a large majority of the Ukrainian citizens, many of whom took to the streets. The Maidan Revolution was a revolution supported by the majority of Ukrainians, although Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the East, whose lands had been ruled by Russia since the seventeenth century, were critical of such anti-Russian ultranationalist displays. Let’s be clear: The claim that the EuroMaidan was a ‘coup d’état’ hatched by a cabal of far-right conspirators and extremists unsympathetic to the people of Ukraine is manifestly and patently false. It was, in essence, a popular rebellion whose participants aspired to create a Ukraine populated by a robust movement towards democracy. It was brought about by a profound crisis of capitalism in tandem with a dire political crisis, which created a staunch opposition to the actions of President Yanukovych and his cadre of oligarchs from Donetsk. Supporters of Russian paramilitaries and their warlords in Donbas and their revanchist overlords in the Kremlin whose acts of settler colonialism – creating a New Russia or Novorossiya – harken back to the days of the Tsar, damningly criticised Ukraine as a failed state, a puppet controlled by the anti-Russian West.
Volodymyr Artiukh provides an astute description of this situation:
So, the Maidan uprising was quickly hijacked … to streamline the popular discontent into this pro-EU pro-NATO straitjacket. A whole stratum of self-organised volunteers, paramilitary groups, NGOs, political adventurers and intellectuals emerged after Maidan, who combined nationalism, neofascism, economic liberalism and ‘Occidentalism’ – a loose idea of the Western civilisation. This was amplified by Western soft power and a network of NGOs – the familiar story. So, the more the conflict progressed along these lines – with Russia also playing its role in amplifying this conflict with its own imperialist ideology – people’s perception was increasingly put in these very narrow confines: either the West or Russia.
The Kyiv government made unsuccessful attempts to take back Donbas in the summer of 2014. These defeats compelled the Ukrainian government to sign the Minsk agreements, with both sides failing to meet the established conditions.
In my view, the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan uprising were popular insurgencies – genuine movements from below – for democracy on the part of the Ukrainian people as they expressed a desire for self-determination, despite the efforts of Washington and the Azov Battalion to control the situation. The Ukrainian people are seeking their independence, and we should stand with them against Russia while not supporting the imperialist agenda of NATO.
So, yes, there was violence attached to the Maidan revolution, mostly encouraged by Svoboda and Right Sector, some of whom were reputed to be participants in the deadly sniper shootings during demonstrations. Putin didn’t get his preferred candidate, Yanukovych, comfortably ensconced in the presidency, so on February 22, he invaded Crimea, where pro-Russian protesters were trading blows with anti-Russian demonstrators. It certainly can be said that the US was more than a disinterested bystander, since US operatives were trying to orchestrate the outcome of Ukraine’s political turmoil and were supporting the unconstitutional ouster of an elected leader who had pro-Russian sentiment. But calling US pressure to install a pro-Western leader a ‘coup’ takes away from those valiant socialists, feminists and union members who took to the streets to fight for the self-determination of Ukraine against its subjugation by Russia, much of their political subjectivity, their agency and their courage.
For many, it was clearly a struggle for democracy and a desire to become part of Europe, even as we acknowledge that much of the violence was provoked by the far-right. Ukraine, unfortunately, is burdened by its considerable flaws and engagements in repression. Protesters during Maidan were also struggling against capitalism and Russian imperialism; many of them were ‘captured’ by Ukrainian ultra-nationalist ideology. Yes, they were fighting against Russia (a Christian Slavic, ethno-nationalist, bureaucratic, collectivist state and society that some have even described as feudal-bureaucratic) and Russian imperialism with its cabal of ‘kleptomaniacs and criminals’ and pumped-up plutocrats as bad or worse than the ones currently infecting Ukraine, but because they are supported by the US, their struggle is often dismissed by the ‘campist’ wings of the US left, their popular agency denied.
International solidarity among working people is a tenet that should be respected, not denigrated. That is why I stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian labour movement. And yes, at the same time, we should denounce US attempts to influence the outcome of a democratic election in a foreign country, just as we should resist Zelensky’s neoliberal authoritarianism. Putin began a criminal engagement. Ukraine joining NATO was never really on the table. The idea of NATO expanding into Ukraine was never seriously considered by France or Germany, and possibly even Biden. Is Biden using the conflict to weaken Russia – yes. But, at the same time, NATO is being used as a ruse by Putin to justify Russia’s invasion. And Ukraine has the right to defend itself on the battlefield. Ukraine has a right to defend itself with whatever weapons it deems fit to acquire.
Russia is clearly challenging Ukraine’s legitimacy as an independent nation. There is a strong case to be made for those Ukrainian protesters who cannot be considered pawns or proxies and are fighting for their own freedom, independence and self-determination as Russia reigns down terror on civilian populations. Putin wants to dismantle Ukraine and even claimed that it is ‘not a real country.’ Yet it was Lenin who insisted that ‘a free Russia is impossible without a free Ukraine.’ By the same token, Lenin also insisted that British socialism was meaningless without Irish independence.
Luis: However, it can be said that Putin’s actions are provoked by NATO and the US. Do you think that he believes that NATO and the US betrayed Russia over the pacts and agreements they may have established?
Peter: Putin believes that the West betrayed Russia in the post-Soviet period because many former Warsaw Pact allies joined NATO. One can certainly understand Putin’s feeling of betrayal by the West, as it was encroaching on what he believes to be Russia’s rightful sphere of influence. At the time that a unified Germany joined NATO in 1990, Secretary of State James Baker and other Western leaders had assured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would expand ‘not one inch eastward.’ And the Biden administration has continued to defend the ‘open door’ principle of allowing nations, including Ukraine, to decide if they want to join NATO, although it is unclear if Biden would have seriously considered Ukraine becoming an official member. For Putin, it was clear that the US would not recognise any limitation on the right of Ukraine to pursue NATO membership, which Putin saw as a provocation. Putin wants assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will never be allowed to join NATO. They want NATO to pull out their forces from Eastern Europe, including Romania and Bulgaria. Ultimately, they seek a return to a 1997 level of deployment.
So, clearly, we can understand Putin feeling threatened. NATO established much of the groundwork for this war; that is clear. But the responsibility for the invasion rests with Putin and his advisors. Putin doesn’t recognise Ukraine as a sovereign state. I won’t go over the history of Ukraine and the role of Lenin and Stalin again, which I have done in numerous articles and a book, but it’s not difficult to see why the former Soviet satellites of Hungary and Czechoslovakia wanted to join NATO as a shield from Russian aggression, given that their desire for autonomy had been destroyed by Soviet tanks (Budapest 1956, Prague Spring 1968). ‘Tankies’ and ‘campists’ supported the Russian invasion because they felt that these revolts were hatched by Washington. And let’s not forget that Putin failed to honour Russia’s international commitment when he clearly violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which he had signed in 1994. In this agreement, the Russian Federation promised not to use military force or economic manipulation against Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state. Fellow Western leftists defending Russia also prefer to avoid mentioning Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists from the eastern Donbas region, not to mention the subsequent troop buildup on the Ukrainian border.
What bothers Putin is not so much the Nazification of Ukraine, as the pro-democracy movement growing there, which he had earlier underestimated. Look, I am for a peace settlement. I understand that any forthcoming peace deal will likely require a promise of Ukrainian neutrality. The war in Ukraine is the greatest danger to the survival of the planet, given its potential for setting off a nuclear war. Danger also resides in situations surrounding the Balkans – Serbia’s border dispute with Kosovo, which has an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian majority, and which saw Kosovo break away from Serbia after a war in 1998-99. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state, and, while Russia, Serbia and Belarus have formed a support network known as the Slavic Brotherhood, there appears, as of this writing, a discernible shift in Serbia’s position since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And there is always the danger of how NATO will respond. The world is becoming a tinderbox. German support for Ukraine is tepid, with more support in Western Germany than Eastern Germany, and, overall, it’s not difficult to discern a significant anti-Americanism among the Germans.
I condemn the nationalist radicalisation and the presence of neo-Nazis in Kyiv, the Azov Battalion, for instance – but let’s remember that Azov is not supported politically by the majority of the Ukrainian people. They have been integrated into the National Guard, and, yes, they still are a potential threat. We cannot support Nazi ideology anywhere, and one can certainly find it in the United States without looking any further than the increase in far-right militia movements throughout the country. But it is important to remember that there is more political support for the far-right in Germany and France than in Ukraine. The neo-Nazi battalion, the Azov Battalion, is fighting the Russians and is admired for their bravery on the battlefield. But the claim that Ukraine is a Nazi state is morally reprehensible, especially when it is used to justify Putin’s repugnant slaughter of Ukraine’s civilian population.
Luis: What worries me is that some leftists from the West support Russia’s actions without reflecting on the genocide Putin is executing on Ukraine’s people. It could be perceived as the wrong way of being anti-imperialist.
Peter: It disheartens me to see fellow leftists abandon the people of Ukraine. Just as I opposed the US war in Iraq, I oppose Putin’s state terrorist attack on the people of Ukraine, its deadly missile attacks on civilians – women, children, the elderly and infirm. Its torture centres and its murder of civilians. I stand by the people of Ukraine as they resist Russian state terrorism. I support those Russian citizens protesting the war under threat of imprisonment. I condemn Russian imperialism, acknowledging with regret that Leila Al-Shami is correct when she notes:
This pro-fascist left seems blind to any form of imperialism that is non-western in origin. It combines identity politics with egoism. Everything that happens is viewed through the prism of what it means for Westerners – only white men have the power to make history.
Clearly, we need to avoid what Gilbert Achcar calls ‘the anti-imperialism of fools.’ Keep a keen eye on the malfeasance of US foreign policy, yes, and be critical of the neoliberal authoritarianism of Zelensky’s regime, of course, and caution against the Azov battalion and Ukraine’s fascist elements, most surely, but don’t allow a lingering nostalgia for the former Soviet Union as the birthplace of socialism (while it was really the birthplace of state capitalism) to get in the way of a sustained critique of Russian imperialist aggression – and fascism – when it is warranted. And it is warranted.
What I have been criticising is the ‘campist’ and neo-Stalinist politics rife in the American left today. Campists argue that those who criticise the so-called anti-imperialist nations (Russia, China, etc.) place themselves on the side of US imperialism. La Botz describes the logic of campism as something like this: X is an enemy of the United States; therefore, X is anti-imperialist; therefore, we support X, and, since X is anti-imperialist, it must be progressive. It follows that any criticism of country X is reactionary. People who criticise any anti-imperialist nation such as X must be on the side of imperialism. So, for example, since the United States is an imperial power, and China opposes the United States, then China must be progressive (some will even say socialist). So then, the argument goes, those who criticise China for putting some 1.5 million Uyghurs in concentration camps or for its crushing of the democratic movement in Hong Kong must be allied with the United States government and are objectively pro-imperialist. This is the campist logic, according to La Botz.
Luis: It seems that the leftists that support Putin’s invasion will not hold him accountable for the genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Peter: Some far-left critics of the war in Ukraine have refused to hold Russia accountable for their invasion and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Because they hold the US as mostly responsible for Putin’s invasion, it’s difficult to read their works as anything other than pro-Putin propaganda. A patent example of this is the work of the editor-in-chief of The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal, who opposes ‘US imperialism’ so much that he appears on a mission to discredit Ukraine and anyone who might support Ukraine. An article in Media Sapiens effectively illustrates this point:
After analysing his [Blumenthal’s] posts and links shared on Twitter after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Molfar experts concluded that 55% contained fake news and claims and 24% aimed at inciting hatred towards Ukraine. Blumenthal’s main theses are identical to those of Russian propaganda:
- President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy uses the war to destroy the opposition;
- Zelensky is a puppet of the West;
- The SSU acts on the instructions of the CIA, MI-5 and European states;
- The US and NATO are sponsoring the war in Ukraine;
- The government in Ukraine is connected with neo-Nazis;
- Neo-Nazis from the Azov battalion and the Ukrainian army mock civilians;
- Ethnic cleansing is taking place in Ukraine;
- The Ukrainian government supports the killing of officials who cooperate with Russia.
I need to share with you, Luis, this quotation from a book review written by Eric Draitser that captures the sentiment I am trying to get across. It is worthwhile including at length:
Several years ago, I was sitting in a Lower Manhattan café with a friend, the journalist Arun Gupta, lamenting the state of the Left and how so many ostensible leftists had become little more than cheerleaders for reactionary politics. While downing mediocre coffee and an overpriced salad bar lunch, I listened as Arun made an incisive observation: ‘In the US, the Left has never been close to power. But even powerless, the Left has had influence through correct political analysis. The Left has shaped politics by being right.’ And as I thought about it, Arun had a great point. Whether it was the labour movement, civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, or the anti-nukes movement, all were propelled into the mainstream of US political life by the Left.
And, so, there is a tradition that we on the Left in the United States – the diseased heart of the imperial ‘West’ – have an obligation to uphold. Our job is not to cosplay as Little Kissingers studying the global chessboard and basing our political views on the positioning of non-Western pieces. Instead, our responsibility is to discern what is real and to defend and propagate that truth in the service of internationalism and liberation from capitalist and imperialist oppression. Our job is to help others understand violence: who is perpetrating aggression, who is victimised, and how we can stop it. Our job is to make sense of the senseless. This is what we are missing when we view the war in Ukraine mainly through the lens of US-NATO aggression and fail to situate the war in contexts that clearly reveal Russia’s culpability. That was the purpose of my book and a number of articles that I published in PESA Agora.
I’m not mentioning this to exonerate the history of US imperialism but to reveal the extent to which numerous far-left critics have become shameless propagandists for Putin’s war in Ukraine. One is hard-pressed to see in their work any criticism of Putin or the Russian war campaign and war crimes. Clearly, in my view, it’s possible to be critical of the history of US imperialism and NATO and still support the right of Ukraine to defend itself and the right of Ukrainians to fight for their existence as Ukrainians. There is no reason to let Putin off the hook and to paint him as a victim. Some of this reporting is egregious and dovetails with the worst of the far-right. These leftist critics were silent when Putin recently compared himself to Peter the Great, claiming Russia’s right to expand into its previous colonies, Ukraine being one of them. I can see where the far-right back Putin, since his attack on the GLBTQ+ community and his traditionalism and relationship with the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is so appealing to them. And I can understand why the left bears so much distrust towards the United States when it comes to foreign policy. What about Ukraine? Is it simply a puppet of the US?
My support of Ukraine is not to weaken Russia, as the US has admitted as one of its goals, but to defend Ukraine from Russian imperial aggression. Jan Dutkiewicz, a policy fellow at the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard Law School, and Dominik Stecuła, an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University, describe the attitudes of those leftists who are against supporting Ukraine in these terms:
By treating the United States as the de facto global power, even though it is a great power they oppose, they inadvertently repeat great-power tropes, such as that the United States should (and can) achieve a cease-fire in Ukraine and dictate the terms of that cease-fire to both Russia and Ukraine. This includes the idea that the United States should convince Ukraine to cede territory and the people who live there to Russia.
Reviving a Yalta Conference mindset but from the left, these ostensible progressives refuse Ukrainians agency, oppose US armed involvement, and yet believe that the United States has the power and right to parcel out Ukrainian land in exchange for peace in Ukraine. In the heart of this perverse leftist anti-imperialism lies the un-imperial impulse to wield imperial power but only, ostensibly, in the name of peace – no matter the will of the locals.
It is not that the US far right and far left share a unified foreign-policy vision, but they do share a vision for Ukraine: naive anti-interventionism…. [I]t foments a contrarianism that is perhaps most visible on issues where there is a rare national consensus, such as support for Ukraine. In this case, the contrasting motivations of left and right populists lead both sides to reach the same position: one that ‘both-sides’ the war in Ukraine, denies Ukrainians agency, and plays right into Putin’s hands. And this, despite the fact that there is nothing inherent in either far-right or far-left thought that leads to support for Russia or opposition to the plight of Ukrainians.
It is here that far-right and far-left thinking both betray a populism that distrusts the establishment but for different ideological reasons.
Luis: Being a devil’s advocate for the left criticism of Zelensky, we can say that some of the criticisms are connected to the distance Zelensky has had with the workers, with the working class.
Peter: Yes, Taras Bilous writes that the Zelensky government represents primarily the interests of the middle bourgeoisie – the hedge fund and high-value net worth community – rather than the interests of the working class. And while Zelensky and his administrators have no problem pushing neoliberal anti-labour legislation, at the same time, they are also capable of subduing the power of the oligarchs. The influence of the oligarchs has become attenuated as a result of the war. At the very least, Zelensky is acutely aware of the corruption in his ranks. That is a move in the right direction.
Luis: How could you state your position regarding the war?
Peter: Ukraine is a former colony of the Tsarist and then the Soviet empires. It has been dominated and viciously exploited by Russian Tsarist and Stalinist rulers for centuries. Russia’s neocolonial invasion of Ukraine must be denounced in no uncertain terms, as we must denounce NATO and other imperialist forces. At the same time, I defend Ukraine’s right to national self-defence.
As an international socialist, I believe Ukraine has a right to self-determination and to receive outside weapons – that is my position. As an international socialist, I believe that we can support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia since this struggle is widely supported by the Ukrainian people. At the same time, I am not under any obligation to endorse the domestic policies of the Ukrainian government, which admittedly has a serious problem with corruption. As a socialist, my support is directed to the Ukrainian left, the socialists, anarchists, those fighting for working-class rights, and independent leftists who are fighting Russia while at the same time opposing Zelensky’s neoliberal politics.
Putin’s actions are a violation of the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination. My support is wholly behind Ukraine’s national self-determination. Clearly, it is up to Ukraine and Ukrainians to decide the future of their country, including the terms of peace with the Russian aggressor attacking civilian apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, electricity grids and infrastructure – in short, committing war crimes.
I have detected a tinge of racism among some who claim that the Ukrainians are mere toys in the hands of NATO. Ukrainians deserve much more credit than that. Whether you call it imperialism in Lenin’s sense of the term, or cultural or economic imperialism (or even just Great Russian Nationalism), it is clear that Russia poses a threat to all post-Soviet republics (remember Abkhazia [Georgia], Chechnya?) and countries at its borders. Russian imperialism betrays differences from European or North American colonial empires, and we can, of course, disagree on if, how or why that is the case).
I suppose that, when Ukraine declared itself independent in 1991, during the breakup of the Soviet Union, this had little or nothing to do with Soviet imperialism or colonialism? Really? Forget that the 1932-1933 Holodomor killed 5 million Ukrainians and has been described as an act of genocide (since the Soviet Politburo consciously deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside). I believe it is important to take the national independence of a people under attack by repressive bureaucracies seriously – and this includes an attack by the current Kremlin bureaucracy. Recall that The World Congresses of the Fourth International in 1957 and 1979 adopted the slogan of Ukrainian independence. How is it possible to have self-determination outside the context of national independence?
I believe it is gross hypocrisy and essentially anti-humanist to oppose US imperialism but not Russian imperialism (or vice versa). I oppose both. How is it possible to support self-determination for Cuba but not for Ukraine (or vice versa)? I support both. I affirm these as fundamental Marxist principles. And I also condemn both Russian and Ukrainian fascism, in whatever capacity they reveal themselves, as I condemn the growing fascism among Republican politicians in the US.
My signal position is that Russia needs to withdraw its troops from Ukraine. And let the peace negotiations begin. I encourage that above all else. But in the meantime, Ukraine has a right to make the decisions as to where to get its arms and to secure victory on the battlefield. I do not support providing Ukraine arms that would enable it to do more than defend its own borders. In other words, I don’t support Ukraine attacking Russian territory. And I am getting worried, more and more about the fate of the future of Ukrainian democracy with each passing day.
Luis: Nevertheless, some leftists seem to oppose Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Peter: I would like to think that the majority of the international left support Ukraine. Some on the left, who claim to be against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, feel that arming Ukraine or sanctioning Russia will simply prolong the US proxy war and feed the arms industry. Some progressive anti-interventionists who choose not to support Ukraine are doing so because they are fearful that the US foreign policy establishment is going to take us to a new Cold War. Some even call for an appeasement strategy that will offer Russia considerable concessions and are willing to sacrifice the survival of Ukraine – and pander to Russia in doing so – if that’s what it takes to avoid a thermonuclear holocaust. I want to emphasise here that I support the resistance of the Ukrainian people against colonial domination by Russia. How many of these anti-imperialists who are against sending arms to Ukraine supported arms deliveries by Moscow and Beijing to support the Vietnamese resistance? Wasn’t it possible to support Vietnam’s fight for national independence but remain critical of its Stalinist leadership? How can you oppose US imperialism and not oppose Russian imperialism? Leftists who support Cuba’s self-determination but not Ukraine’s self-determination are indulging in political legerdemain, if not downright hypocrisy. Similarly, how can you denounce the vicious war crimes of Russia without denouncing those that were committed by the US in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or betraying historical amnesia when it comes to interventions in the Balkans in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011? I don’t support the neoliberal authoritarianism and anti-labour direction of Ukraine’s government, nor do I believe that Ukraine is simply a pawn of the United States, a country sapped of its own agency by the grand puppet master, the United States. I’m no cheerleader for NATO, either. The larger struggle, of course, is the struggle for socialism, uprooting the logic of capital and the social form that labour assumes in a capitalist society, and this requires, as the International Marxist Humanist Organisation maintains, a reconstruction of Marxism on a humanist basis. And that is what drives my opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many of my comrades in America Latina are siding with Putin, some claiming that NATO provoked the war and that Russia is simply ‘defending itself’ from the evil American empire. I would ask them to please explain, in the words of Raphael Tsavkko Garcia,
how this so-called act of ‘defence’ is different from the West’s past ‘pre-emptive’ strikes against countries of the Global South that they vehemently condemned?’ And why are they ‘dismissing credible reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide coming from Ukraine as Western ‘distortions’ and ‘NATO propaganda’ funded by George Soros (ironically also the bogeyman of the anti-Semitic far right), in defence of Ukrainian ‘Nazis’ trying to destroy Russia?’
To be fair, as Garcia notes, ‘there is not a single right-wing dictatorship on the continent that was born without a degree of US support or encouragement.’ But Garcia asserts that it is wrongheaded to think that Russia will somehow put an end to US imperialism and miraculously bring an end to US hegemony and facilitate the emergence of a multipolar world. Putin is not liberating Ukraine from Nazis. Bashar al-Assad is no anti-imperialist hero. There is not only one evil in the world – the United States. Yes, it is the belly of the beast, but the beast, it turns out, has more than one belly. The digestive system of political malfeasance is not spared from geopolitics. Let’s continue the long and difficult struggle against both US imperialism and the bounteous menace of Putin’s attempt to annihilate the independent existence of Ukraine. We need to support the workers of Ukraine in building an independent socialist program and creating independent trade unions and political parties.
Peter McLaren with Daniel Ellsberg
Part II: Fascism and the Decay in American Politics
Luis: As Ukraine and many other countries in the world ─ such as Hungary, India, Brazil and Italy, to mention some of them ─ are suffering the assault from fascism, here in the US, we are facing serious threats from the fascism that has taken root in the institutional politics of the right-wing US politicians. What are your impressions of that connection between fascism and extreme right-wing politicians?
Peter: Right now, we need to contend with the Sedition Caucus of the Republican Party. They have gone stark raving mad. They blatantly lie about their opponents – knowingly lie – since they realise there will be no accountability for their behaviour. They don’t care how much blood is on their hands. It was, I believe, Jonathan Swift who wrote: ‘Besides, as the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers; and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.’ Never before has this maxim had greater currency. The current Republican administration, through its vitriolic harpies such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and fickle far-right fabulists such as Steve Bannon and Jim Jordan, is reweaving the fibres of human decency into a Tree of Death tapestry that will forever be on display in the decaying cathedrals of American democracy.
The negative ideological valence commonly associated with US Freedom Caucus-style politics is now hyper-charged with an electrifying and pitiless divisiveness and an increasingly contagious derangement among lawmakers. US geopolitics has always been the subject of blistering critique for its support of fascist governments in Latin America and internationally assailed for its wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, its gun policy, the astounding rate of mass shootings, and its treatment of minority groups and police violence directed at African Americans. That there are so many Trump supporters across the country is in itself a truly frightening prospect to ponder, and should he be re-elected in 2024, the US government will certainly begin paring back material support for Ukraine. Putin is counting on Trump’s re-election in order to rout Ukrainian resistance. The damage he will wreak is on a scale unimaginable, as Trump and his cult of fanatics will be seeking revenge against Trump’s Republican opponents and continue their bloodthirsty war against the ‘woke’ Democratic Party. It is not difficult to imagine the US becoming an international pariah as it begins to match or overtake other countries, such as Hungary, in its fascist predilections. Fox News has been exposed by Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit that has become an international scandal, confirming that the major hosts of the country’s most watched right-wing cable news outlet, in late 2020 and early 2021, promoted attorney Sidney Powell’s false claim that Dominion’s ballot counting equipment was secretly calibrated to help now-President Joe Biden steal the presidential election from then-President Donald Trump. Dominion has exposed e-mails and text messages that show Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and others at Fox News privately admitting that Powell’s claim was a complete fabrication. Carlson and his colleague Sean Hannity privately acknowledged to each other that the narrative of the stolen election was false. Knowing that it was important to provide their audience with exactly what they wanted to hear, they feared acknowledging the truth about the election to their zombified Trump-loving viewers lest their audience diminish and their Fox stocks plummet. Telling the truth would be tantamount to culling their audience. And yet these hypocritical hosts chose to do what Fox has become famous for – laundering the truth as the loyal propaganda wing of the Republican Party – as they rebuked reporters who attempted to tell the truth that the 2020 election was not stolen. Tucker Carlson has been dumped by Fox, but he will be back with his own show, on some platform, and he will continue to carve up American democracy to his liking. No restraints.
Luis: And the political events that aim to support Trump and his acolytes are also organised and promoted by neofascists and white supremacists, such as Steve Bannon and Nick Fuentes.
Peter: Absolutely, Luis. For instance, take the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) 2023. Georgia’s own Republican firebrand, far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, spoke at that event (CPAC 2023), along with the who’s who of authoritarian autocrats, including Brazil’s fascist former president, Jair Bolsonaro, famous for his attempt to strip Paulo Freire of his title, Patron of Brazilian Education, and for inciting a coup in Brazil a la Trump. Given Marjorie Taylor Greene’s screeching commentaries about Jewish space lasers, the ‘gazpacho’ police, the stolen 2020 election and paedophiles running the Democratic Party (she was part of the QAnon cult, which she claims to no longer support), how can anyone take her seriously? But they do. She is adored by Trump’s base. She has argued that the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was a false flag operation. She’s launched her vitriol at one of the survivors, David Hogg. It is difficult to imagine that she could play a central role in the Republican Party. She is constantly flooding the media ecosphere with conspiracy theories, hoping some of the shit she hurls will stick in the brainpans of her fervent followers. She claims Hillary Clinton is a murderer and once wore the severed face she cleaved from one of her child victims. She claims that there is an invasion of Muslims into the US government, and that President Obama was a Muslim, that Muslims want to kill all non-Muslims, and that Obama ordered the MS13 gang to murder Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Try to comprehend that Greene, a self-styled Christian Nationalist, is now the face of today’s turbulent GOP in lockstep with insanity. Trump has said that he loves Marjorie Taylor Greene. She wants to protect ‘Anglo-Saxon political traditions.’ She has Trump on speed dial. She has compared Anthony Fauci to a Nazi eugenicist. She has claimed that the Jan 6 insurrection was orchestrated by opponents of Trump to make him look bad. According to Greene, Democrats have begun killing Republicans. She compared compulsory Covid mask rules to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. She claims Black Lives Matter flags are ‘hate America flags.’ She doesn’t want Pride flags displayed at US embassies. She claimed the Equality Act will destroy ‘God’s creation.’ Transgender people have ‘unnatural fantasies.’ There is a plot to turn everyone gay or trans. Bill Gates is behind a plot to force Americans to eat synthetic meat, which is grown in a ‘peach tree dish.’ The United States military is preparing to fly helicopters from Afghanistan to the United States and attack Trump supporters. Americans certainly love politicians who ‘go rogue’ even if what they are saying is gonzo bat shit crazy. If you bombard your opponents with lies, they will become overwhelmed and eventually exhausted, and their frustration will etherise them to the truth. What is truth, anyway, in this post-truth era of alternative facts? For Republicans, it’s much safer and less frustrating just to choose which side you are on and leave it at that.
Luis: We have plenty of examples of extremist right-wing politicians that, at this moment, are rising to the centre of the media and within the institutions that must defend democracy in the US.
Peter: As I mentioned, a clear example of this is the battle-axe woman from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and her rapid rise in the Republican Party. Presently she is calling for the red and blue states to formally split from each other and create two Americas. Putin has been trying to divide the US, and his wish may be fulfilled, not in creating two separate Americas, but in halting support for Ukraine if Trump or DeSantis win the White House in 2024.
Just as in Spain in 1931, when democracy failed to prevent the Great Depression, democracy and capitalism are being called into question all over the world as the stench of fascism grows stronger. Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson rave about fascist Viktor Orban and Hungary as a model for the US to follow. Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert continue to make news headlines without having to be accountable for their hate speech. Their bony exoskeletons brush against our deontological, rule-based ethical universe. They fit with today’s period-specific cultural patterns, the authoritarian Zeitgeist that now ideologically conditions our capitalist nervous system. Instead of historically reserving our discontent for fascist party leaders who skilfully essentialise, stereotype, scapegoat, fear monger, manipulate statistics, ignore history and context and use false equivalencies to try to represent their obscenely bigoted views as the ‘frontier of free speech,’ we now glorify demagogues like Trump, Putin and Orban. During the Spanish Civil War, thousands of foreign volunteers journeyed to Spain to fight for the Repַública cause against the fascist ideologue Franco. Republican forces included liberals, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists and Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists. The Lincoln Brigade was made up of a group of volunteers from the United States who served as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and pilots. They fought alongside the Spanish Republican forces against the fascists while the United States, along with other capitalist countries, either took a stance of neutrality or else supported Hitler, Mussolini and Francisco Franco, the latter of whom was determined to Make Spain Great Again with his Nazi-supported Nationalist faction.
Trump’s political style resembles that of a fascist leader, and the ‘America First’ Trump administration shared some similarities with Franco’s Spain. Trump, however, gifted to fascism a specific American stamp. He was brilliant in creating a fanatical nationalist fervour based on American exceptionalism, a call to make the US a Christian nationalist state, courting far-right extremists. Consider his frequent calls to his base to engage in violence, his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis and other militant extremists, his normalisation of the Big Lie about the stolen election and his impact on fomenting the savagery surrounding the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building. He gives nods to his supporters to advance their white supremacist agenda by targeting people of colour, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and women and then hiding behind the Constitution; even the Constitution he is willing to sacrifice in order to be reinstalled as president. Trump dismisses anti-racist groups as engaging in self-victimisation and race-baiting. Critical race theory becomes an attack on white people. It’s a mess.
Luis: And, unfortunately, that Is the new face of the Republican Party, which is a mask that includes and hides fascists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
Peter: Indeed. This description of Marjorie Taylor Greene by Elaina Plott Calabro gives us some stomach-churning insight into her appeal and serves as a warning about the future of the United States:
She was very late. A man named Barry was compelled to lead the room in a rendition of Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA.’ to stall for time. But when she did arrive, the tardiness was forgiven, and the Cobb County Republican Party’s November breakfast was made new. She wasn’t greeted. She was beheld like a religious apparition. Emotions verged on rapture. Later, as she spoke, one man jumped to his feet with such force that his chair fell over. Not far away, two women clung to each other and shrieked. I was knocked to my seat when a tablemate’s corrugated-plastic flood the polls sign collided inadvertently with my head. Upon looking up, I came eye-level with a pistol tucked into the khaki waistband of an elderly man in front of me. ‘She is just so great,’ I heard someone say. ‘I mean, she really is just amazing.’
At the same event, Trump lamented that America’s ‘communism state of mind’ has turned into a ‘socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, thugs, Marxist radicals and dangerous refugees that no other country wants.’ He went on to remark adoringly that he has the ‘personality to keep us out of war,’ followed by a comment that should put fear in the hearts of all those who support Ukraine and understand what will happen to Ukraine if Trump is elected in 2024 because he vowed: ‘We are never going back to a party that wants to give unlimited money to fight foreign wars that are endless wars, that are stupid.’ If there is a ‘state of mind’ that has captured the US, it is not communism. It is a grade of fascism that seems so compatible with the spirit of hate channelled by Trump to this base.
I have to admit, Luis, that I’ve rarely seen such childish pranksterism, moral outlawry and discernment abuse displayed more potently than during the 2023 CPAC. We can sit back and mock the cartoonish political tribalising of the American public and the outsized political histrionics of MAGAworld, but that is precisely what the MAGA monster wants – it feeds on liberal pushback, and it is always ready to double down on its stochastic terrorism directed at progressives who are decried as perverts, groomers, Marxists, heathens or communists in hectoring outbursts that echo the shrill cadences of Roland Freisler of the Nazi People’s Court. We are talking about a movement that is leading the country into a fascist neo-Confederacy hellscape from which we may never escape. You might think that I’m exaggerating to make a point. I don’t need any exaggeration since the unthinkable has already happened, and it is poised now to happen again unless we take the political mutants and gaslighting narcissists like Marjorie Taylor Greene more seriously. Chauncey Devega warns:
If someone in 2015 or 2016 had told you that a professional wrestling heel, fake billionaire, wilful ignoramus, white supremacist cult leader and TV host, a man credibly accused of rape many times, a failed casino owner and real estate developer, con artist would become president of the United States, make choices in response to a pandemic that would kill at least a million Americans, bring the country and its democracy to a breaking point, attempt a coup, surrender America’s interests to its enemies such as Russia, commit an endless number of serious crimes while in office, be impeached twice and almost win re-election, and then announce a second presidential candidacy all the while not being held responsible for his crimes, many people would – and did – mock any person willing to say such a thing.
Trump’s speech at CPAC 2023 gave us a glimpse of what could become a nightmare scenario not only for the US but the entire world. With the words ‘I am your warrior, I am your retribution,’ Trump took on the personification of darkness, as if he were enveloped in a cloud of death and destruction. It was then that he assumed many roles simultaneously: he became the Grim Reaper, drooling in anticipation of finally being able to wield his scythe to lop off the heads of his enemies; just as suddenly, he was transformed into a psychopomp tasked with guiding the loyal souls of MAGA World to the America First afterlife, a place that resembles Nuremberg during a Nazi rally, only with the swastika replaced with an image of Trump as Rambo. He had, at this very moment, ordained himself the American Nemesis, the Sauron of planet Earth, seeking to punish all those who refused to kiss his ring of power, which was somehow salvaged from the fires of Mount Doom by Steve Bannon. Will the Pentecostal preachers across the country now take to their pulpits and big tents, grab hold of their rattlesnakes, and scream the words in Psalms 94:1: ‘O LORD, the God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, let your glorious justice shine forth’? Trump is positioning himself as a lone warrior for justice – both judge and jury and executioner – someone who will impose judgement and punishment upon the criminals of the deep state. Should he be elected, he could easily embrace Putin and betray the Ukrainian people, free the January 6 insurrectionists, create alliances with the most authoritarian world leaders, appoint judges who will do his bidding, purge recalcitrant civil servants and exercise a ham-fisted control on the federal judiciary. Under Trump’s leadership, state legislators will rig future elections through gerrymandering, curbing Black and brown votes to favour overwhelming Republican election victories for the foreseeable future. Should this come to pass, the country will become, in effect, a one-party state, goose-stepping to the beat of Trump’s fist-pumping dance. Trump could withdraw from NATO, cosy up to other dictators and allow corporations to run havoc over the environment. And if we think DeSantis is destroying education, wait until Trump seizes the reins of power once more. After all, Trump proclaimed: ‘We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush. People are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see America First.’ This fascist demagogue talks.
Luis: And people in his cult seem to love that. They never question what he is sharing with them at the rallies, even though they are clear lies that could easily be contradicted with facts.
Peter: To be honest, Luis, I don’t think Trump supporters necessarily like Trump. They know he’s a liar and a con man, and they are okay with that. They enjoy the way Trump attacks liberals, and they are addicted to his most outrageous antics. People who feel marginalised and dehumanised by life’s tribulations identify with figures that condemn liberals as elitist. Trump performs all the ennui and alienation felt by his base. They like the way Trump seeks revenge. They want to see him execute his revenge, and they want to experience his destruction vicariously – they want their endorphin hits. That’s why he could get back in. They want to see him effect his retribution. He’s the anti-hero. The odds are against someone like Trump becoming president – which pushes them even more to support Trump. He is the middle finger in the face of an elite who set in motion a rule-based system that his base has come to deplore. That is the key to understanding ‘the deplorables.’
Trump is a foot-weary wanderer in the rancid gutters of American politics along with the groypers, the Orbánists, the Christian nationalists, the armed militias, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the insurrectionists and the alt-right. His false concern for the working class remains antiseptically cleaved from true compassion. Consider again his salvationist alchemy – “I am your warrior, I am your justice, I am your retribution’ – echoing the bastard children of all Marvel supervillains; his clinical aloofness from any measure of accountability; his unctuous showman’s shenanigans; his frivolous annihilation of the truth; his thousand inanities and gangster-wealth; his imperishable longing for attention; his mind ever uncluttered with complex thought – all of this will be defended by the rabble over whom he presides, defended unto death. He is Sophoclean Nemesis with a comb-over. His mind is forever dominated by the doctrinaire phenomenon of today’s political miscreant – the deep state – which in 2020 came to apotheosis. This is what makes him one of the most dangerous men on the planet.
He has always revealed a limitless enthusiasm for lying. But let’s not forget that the world of conspiracy theories began in earnest during the Bush Hijo years. Good ol’ boy George W. Bush helped to fashion the narrative that Iraq was behind 9-11. And that Saddam was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. These lies helped pave the way for today’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Now in the post-truth world, lies are just ways of reordering reality such that the truth is always somebody else’s lie. We thrive on lies and deny history at the same time, guaranteeing the eternal return of the same. And the real truths – the ones that are the most difficult to bear will just disappear – the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow, the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy – will only return one day in the mouths of another fresh set of deniers and falsifiers. I suppose we could say that the term ‘post-truth’ is itself a lie since the truth has always been buried in a set of competing claims, only now there is a greater potential for personal, political and geo-political abuse.
Trump’s delivery can only be described as lofty irreverence. He has perfected a marriage between his ill-tempered voice and his inimitable delivery that somehow comes off as a kind of pimpish grandiosity. A recent message he posted on his Truth Social account reflects unpurged images of America’s impending doom that engulfs both gossip and his familiar tropes of revenge on his opponents. As always in these messages to his base, he takes a well-trodden detour to his vacuous claim that those out to get him are undertaking the greatest witch hunt in the nation’s history. Ignorance has a peculiar ascendency over him, as do conspiracy theories. If you happen to have a friend who belongs to the Democratic Party or is a RINO (Republican In Name Only), it is a sure sign that you have been successfully recruited by the Marxists and communists that comprise the deep state. If you believe that nonsense, you will likely fall for the claims of some guy in a white cowboy hat trying to convince viewers that the Beast in Revelation is either Prince Charles or the Catholic Church – this, of course, after a pitch to purchase his book which just happens to be on sale at a discount. Some of Trump’s supporters were expecting him to be arrested during Lent and, not surprisingly, are comparing him to Jesus.
Fascism often blurs faith and politics, casting aside one’s critical, analytical faculties and merging lies with transcendent meanings. His followers speak about Trump as if they truly believe he represents a martyr for Everyman. He fashions himself as the Suffering Servant. Dictators have long been adept at manipulating religious symbols and sentiments, regimenting the irrational in the service of absolute certainty and aggrandising the fascist leader’s messianic mission. Trump has even labelled his own mission as ‘redemptive.’ As I mentioned earlier, during Day 3 of CPAC, former President Trump preaches to the crowd: ‘I am your warrior, I am your justice … and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.’ What could be more messianic? Trump has modelled himself as an avenging angel. Ezra Pound would be thrilled.
Luis: That is very worrying!
Peter: Yes, and I worry about the mental health of Americans who are forced to travel on the road America is currently travelling, inspired in large part by the hate-filled agendas of the Republicans. I imagine this road to be similar to those medieval roads where you can be beset by marauders, bandits and thieves at every turn. And I’m not a big fan of the Democrats, either (I’m an equal opportunity critic), but I see the Republicans as decidedly more dangerous. The rise of the tried-and-true American Nazi and fascist is deeply troubling. Even conservative critics are using the word ‘fascism’ now to describe Trumpian politics – something that they would never have imagined doing in their lifetime. Trump’s recent calls to action when he was about to be indicted in New York are veiled appeals to violence. Consider the rise of armed militias and the havoc they can create should their numbers keep expanding. Consider the cowardice of the Republicans surrounding their failure to denounce Trump.
One risks serious depression if you are an avid follower of the news. Before I was even 10 minutes into scanning the news today, Rachel Maddow reported that a book about the Holocaust by popular author Jodi Picoult has been banned by a county in Florida. Consider the number of mass shootings we are having on a regular basis. Since 2009, there have been 301 mass shootings across the country, resulting in 1688 people shot and killed and 1087 people shot and wounded. We’ve already surpassed 100 mass shootings in 2023. An expert witness invited by House Republicans during their hearing probing Covid-19 origins wrote a book claiming that Jews were genetically adapted to capitalism and biologically programmed to love money; as part of a Reawaken America Tour, Eric Trump is travelling the country with a guy who has antisemitic history, who is claiming the Jews were responsible for 9-11 and that Hitler was fighting for the same people we are trying to take down today; neo-Nazis were given citations in Florida for projecting five-storey images of Swastikas onto tall buildings; in Ohio, armed neo-Nazis were out to disrupt a Drag Queen storytelling event in a park in Ohio, shouting about a ‘Weimar solution’ – and we know from history what that meant in Nazi Germany; Trump supporters are calling for DeSantis to summon the Florida National Guard to prevent Trump from possible arrest; Georgia passed legislation to allow for the removal of prosecutors surrounding the Trump election probe.
I’m going to ramble a bit here, but that’s what happens when you are overwhelmed by destruction. So often when I take stock of global politics and America’s place within it, I am reminded of ‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ Chaos, depersonalisation, existential despair and mounting dread have become perilously endemic. Psychotherapist Esther Perel points out that modern loneliness masks itself as hyper-connectivity; it’s about modern technology creating a sense of artificial intimacy. Perel looks askance at modern technology telling us where to go, what to do, what choices to make – they have made a frictionless universe for us – technology as ‘assisted living.’
Peter McLaren with Paolo Friere
How do we manage our ontological vocation to become more fully human, as Freire would say, in a world of artificial intelligence that has paired seamlessly with today’s sophisticated media technologies and the massive influx of conspiracy theories? Our brainpans are being scanned each time we go online, making us susceptible to the promises of the popular slogans du jour; post-digital associations and connections that harness our affective engagement with the world are increasing our vulnerability to disinformation and hate. We are drawn into a vortex of ideological warfare. My country, right or wrong. America, love it or leave it. Better dead that red. Such sentiments are being resurrected only now we have the term ‘woke’ that the right can’t even define. Better to croak than be woke.
We can’t simply blame students for their susceptibility to disinformation and conspiracy theories, which starts at about age 14. We must provide students with the critical thinking skills needed to understand common human mistakes of perception and logic. How can we help students recognise unreliable information and untrustworthy sources? How can we teach them to evaluate information critically at a time in which social anxiety due to social disenfranchisement is at a high-water mark? How can we challenge politicians bent on developing strategies of deception and disinformation that utilise the most recent discoveries in cognitive science and information technology? How do we teach our youth to protect themselves? There is so much we need to do; it’s hard to know where to begin. The first thing is to pass the Judiciary Act and expand the Supreme Court. Five of the nine justices were picked by presidents who lost the popular vote. We wonder how the US could turn fascist. This is the greatest democracy in the world, isn’t it, Luis? This is the seedbed of humanity and human rights.
Well, let’s look at just one historical event from which we are not that far removed: the Vietnam War. During that war, American soldiers, after raping many of the women, systematically murdered between 347 and 504 defenceless old men, women, children and infants in a Viet Cong stronghold known as Pinkville. They killed the villagers point blank. Children as young as 12 were raped. It became known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre. Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was accused of ordering the massacre, and numerous soldiers participated. How can this even be imaginable? A mile or so away, another American company murdered 97 innocent villagers. What did President Nixon do? He blamed the ‘dirty rotten Jews from New York’ for reporting the slaughter. During an anti-war march that consisted of half a million citizens in Washington, DC, Nixon suggested using army helicopters to blow out the candles of its citizen protesters. What turns human beings into rapists, torturers and murderers? What turns human beings into war profiteers? Or sadists.
Today I read a news story that the FBI has launched an investigation after a nonverbal autistic Jewish student at Clark High School in Las Vegas had a swastika carved into his back. And today, as the war in Ukraine intensifies, US oil companies are profiting more than ever before. ExxonMobil is making 6.3 million dollars each hour in profits, its highest profits ever. And what about Iraq? The Iraq war gave US oil companies a big share. How many American and Iraqi lives were lost so that US oil companies could profit? We can go on and on. If we don’t face our past, we are condemned to repeat it – this is such a self-evident truism and yet teachers are being restricted in this basic challenge. Women in the US no longer have agency over their bodies. They are not free to make decisions over their own bodies. Republicans are weaponising women’s bodies for political leverage – the most recent being Florida’s six-week ban on abortion. Mickey Mouse is too ‘woke’ for Ron DeSantis. Bud Light beer is too trans. DeSantis wants to build a competing theme park next to Disney World? Or maybe a state prison? The anti-government Boogaloo movement, the Proud Boys, the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters are attracting disaffected young men into their ranks at alarming rates. One reprieve: Fox News parent Fox Corp agreed to pay $787.5 million to settle its legal battle with Dominion Voting Systems in advance of what would be a major trial on the voting-machine company’s allegations that it was defamed by network broadcasts after the 2020 presidential election. Well, that’s a bit of accountability. Doomscrolling the news in the happy USA can have a major effect on your emotional health that perhaps only a good sense of humour can ameliorate. But that’s only a temporary respite. Jordan Peterson is growing more mean-spirited and reactionary and charlatanesque than ever. Here is a wonderful quotation from Nathan J. Robinson that captures Peterson’s path to success:
If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like ‘if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of’ or ‘many moral values are similar across human societies.’ Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and, if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelise: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any sceptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured. (It does help if you are male and Caucasian.)
The country only seems remarkable in these times for the calibre of its Rogues Gallery. The Republican-majority US House of Representatives just passed HR 5, the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights,’ which mirrors Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s laws largely responsible for today’s hysteria about books in school libraries and for the targeting of LGBTQ children. You must wonder if we are heading down the same path as Uganda, which just passed one of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ laws in the world, criminalising homosexuality. The draft version of the law demands the death penalty for ‘serial offenders.’ We can thank this law to the tireless efforts of far-right American evangelists who, over the years, have helped to intensify homophobic views throughout Africa by advocating for gay ‘conversion therapy’ and by helping the public immediately associate homosexuality with paedophilia and promoting the idea that homosexuality was a ‘Western-imported ‘disease’ that could be spread to the country’s children.’
Luis: Unfortunately, all these examples you are pointing out of current situations happening in our country demonstrate the dark times we are living in as a nation. We have to continue denouncing the acts and the political actors that are making this world ugly, as Freire said, that are inviting hate and fascism to continue being part of our lives.
Peter: Yes, we live in an ‘ugly’ time. DeSantis’ mainstreaming of hate has taken our country back in time to the days of George Wallace and his segregationist ideas and has destroyed the right of each and every American to claim our own history, a struggle that we have endured for generations, have fought and died for, and, for the most part, we have persevered. I am reminded of some lines by George Orwell that he included in his proposed preface to Animal Farm: ‘If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country, intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.’
Luis: Orwell’s quote you shared with us is today still a sharp criticism of the intellectual cowardice from politicians to denounce and stop Fascist Republicans, or the MAGA Republicans, on the culture wars they started against equity and diversity. They want to take us back to the time of segregation, where the lynching of black people and the oppression and exclusion of people of colour were a regular – and socially accepted – part of the landscapes in the country. The anti-lynching song ‘Strange Fruit’ makes me remember those times and the authoritarian response of the government against Billie Holiday for singing it.
Peter: Yes, the great blues artist Billie Holiday was terrorised as a result of her refusal to stop singing that song, especially by the racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger. Anslinger had his agents sell her heroin in order to frame her, after which time she was sent to prison for more than a year, and she lost her cabaret performer’s licence, ending her nightclub career. Sounds like a DeSantis move, when you think of Florida politics today. To promote the culture wars, Republicans are co-opting the term ‘wokeness’ as the contemporary boogie man destroying the country. They want the term to refer to a generalised support for identity politics, including gender pronouns, mandated diversity, equity and inclusion training, cancel culture, support for the GLBTQ community, for pro-choice, pro-critical race theory, support for immigrants and refugees, for teaching that there are systems of structural oppression operating in the United States regarding race, class, gender and sexuality, pro-intersectionality theory, etc. All of this lumped together supposedly translates as ‘woke.’ Republicans want the term ‘woke’ to include all of these issues, wrapped in a stereotyped image of a protester whom they feel does not appreciate the ‘greatness’ of America. The 60s version of a woke person would have been a hippie, draft resister, anti-establishment advocate. The term woke used by progressives today generally refers to being educated about political issues and participating in the struggle for a more equitable and just society. Sounds good to me. But the Republicans have flipped the script. It’s fashionable for Republicans to blame everything that is wrong in the country on wokeness. Seems like they have found the perfect cultural controversy for the current election cycle that they hope will arouse the ire of their base. They’ve taken advantage of the attacks on political correctness and the trans community and drag queens. What they forget is that there is diversity among the so-called ‘woke’ crowd. Some believe that political correctness has gone too far in certain instances, and there are disagreements around sex education and other issues. But DeSantis in Florida has created a cartoon version of the liberal as ‘woke’ monster who wants to ‘groom’ adolescents into changing their gender identity.
Meanwhile, Republicans think it is okay for Donald Trump to hold his first campaign rally on the 30th anniversary of the Waco siege, a 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians and federal agents that ended on April 19, 1993, when more than 70 ATF agents raided the Branch Davidians compound near Waco, Texas, which was destroyed in a fire and nearly 80 people were killed. Waco has become a shrine for far-right insurrectionists. During the heat of the pandemic, the ideological offspring of the Branch Davidians became ‘Branch Covidians’ and raged against vaccinations as Manchurian Candidate implants by the deep state. During a recent rally, Trump called for ‘death and destruction’ if he was indicted. Trump, whose rhetoric should not be mistaken for a toothless roar, has made himself into a symbol of revenge against all and every injustice that has ever been inflicted upon members of his base throughout their lives. Every cruelty and indignity suffered by his followers throughout their entire lives Trump has convinced them is the result of Satan’s infiltration of the Democratic Party. Trump will now purify the country, eviscerate the demons, dismantle the woketocracy, in Jesus’ name. His followers will be able to run amok, finger-wagging amidst the traitors wreaking havoc, freeing the insurrectionists, and finally executing Hilary Clinton for drinking the blood from the adrenal glands of children. Maybe Donald will institute The Purge, since that appears to be what Donald’s troops really desire. Recently Trump tongue-bathed Putin, Xi and Kim Jong Un with remarks that celebrated their brilliance and toughness. It was a sure signal to these leaders that his loyalty is up for sale and that he would welcome any help from these leading autocrats in the upcoming 2024 presidential election. And it is certain these autocrats will welcome another four years of having a snake-in-the-grass US president all too willing to lick their jackboots.
In her book, Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
I see the Republican Party moving in this direction. Prior to Trump, Sheldon Wolin’s notion of inverted totalitarianism made the most sense in that it did not depend upon a demagogue or charismatic leader. But Trumpian authoritarian populism no longer pays homage to electoral politics or even the Constitution. Trump is ready to throw both of those out the window if it confers an advantage to his personal situation (such as being indicted and liable for prison time), and he knows his followers will support him. But American politics does very much still rely on a culture of fear and instability.
Luis: The use they have given to the language works against democracy. They attach the label ‘fake news’ to any type of information that contradicts the ‘alternative facts’ they want to promote – that is why they detest the fact checks of their discourse – and they create all kinds of conspiracy theories to advance their views, even knowing these theories are demonstrably not true.
Peter: Yes. We often think that the US is the world centrepiece for conspiracy theories, but we might give that a second thought when we consider what fables are percolating through the echo-sphere in Russia. Allison Quinn reveals the palpably false narratives and absurd conspiracy theories created by skilful Russian propagandists who appear endowed with a perverse ability for creating what Quinn calls ‘desperate babble’ such as their stories about ‘murderous war pigeons’ and ‘mutant Ukrainian soldiers,’ ‘satanist cults’ and Ukrainian ‘organ trafficking.’ Following the ‘firehose of falsehood’ model of propaganda,
Putin’s army of media lackeys tried to up the ante with ‘proof’: a photo of Ukraine’s Azov fighters holding up a swastika flag that turned out to be photoshopped; menacing, top-secret battle plans by Azov and the Ukrainian Defence Ministry featuring a bizarre blend of Russian and Ukrainian; Ukraine’s commander-in-chief wearing a swastika ‘that didn’t exist’; bemoaning the horrors of the Kyiv ‘regime’ who were actually Russian bloggers.
But that’s only a start. Quinn further writes:
RIA Novosti, one of the country’s most ‘authoritative’ state-run news organisations, was among the first to start pushing the Satan worship narrative, claiming as early as March 2022 that signs ‘had been found in Ukrainian headquarters. Warmonger and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov soon began referring to Ukrainians as ‘Satanists,’ while state media continued to routinely quote ‘cult experts’ to endorse the claim and ‘de-Satanisation’ soon became the new mission of Russia’s war. Lawmakers and the Russian Foreign Ministry soon jumped on the ‘Ukraine is run by Satanists’ bandwagon as well.
The Kremlin went so far as to claim that the Ukrainians were unleashing ‘avian terror’ by arming birds with ‘bioweapons’ that somehow ‘selectively target’ Russians while ignoring other ethnic groups. They also maintained that Western forces accompanied Ukrainian troops deep into Russian territory. They sent out warnings about Ukrainians planting bombs in telephones, tables, wallets, notebooks and other objects on roads, at street-stands and in shrubs. Russian state TV ran a segment announcing that if your son dies in the war, you can get a brand-new Lada.
Luis: Those Russian conspiracy theories sound as if they were shared by the US QAnon crazies or Marjorie Taylor Greene!
Peter: And there is more. Woke Watch in my native Canada is a politically misguided platform that defines woke as ‘a cultural revolution determined to dismantle liberalism, capitalism and the rule of law found in Western democracies.’ Those political and cultural figures that Woke Watch Canada finds guilty of exercising their critical faculties against the state include the likes of ‘Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, Susan Sontag, Eldridge Cleaver and other ‘cultural revolutionaries’ who made their mark.’ They are accused of helping to – brace yourself – destroy Western civilisation in its entirety. Well, I had a ‘mind-bending’ experience with Leary in 1968, and also met Ginsberg around the same time, so I guess that doesn’t win me any credits with James Pew, who runs Woke Watch Canada, and who is now waging his own reactionary war on those whom he considers serious threats to Western civilisation, and doing so under the heroic guise of saving Western civilisation from impending collapse, assuming that by elevating in epiphanic rants all that the cultural warriors apparently despised – ‘capitalism, liberalism and the rule of law’ – he is making a stalwart contribution to rescuing pre-1960s society, when woke identity politics was, apparently, still in its infancy. He recommends, for instance, a book on totalitarianism to educate readers not about the totalitarian traits of Trumpism (as any rational person might think) or far-right flirtations with illiberalism and fascism spreading throughout the Western world, but about those hoary totalitarians that criticised the unvaccinated, the latter whom he describes as ‘freedom protesters’ (yes, think of the Freedom Riders that descended on Ottawa, civilised blokes those). He doesn’t say whether or not the January 6 insurrectionists were also ‘freedom protesters,’ but it’s not hard to guess how he would describe them. It’s a favourite ploy of the far right – and totalitarians, by the way, just flip the script: ‘didn’t you know that fascism is really a leftist political movement, and so on.’ I think Pew should join the ranks of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently tweeted, ‘Transtifa is organising insurrections.’ Maybe together they can save Western civilisation.
Part III: Gun Culture Warriors
Luis: We have to add the other components the extreme right-wing politicians throw at people: gun control and the 2nd amendment, as well as making diversity and equity and diverse organisations and groups the aim of their attacks. They manipulate people to believe that the ones they attack deserve it because they generate all the problems in the country, from the economic crisis to the destruction of Western culture.
Peter: It is important to know that 120 Americans are killed with guns every day. More than 200 are shot and wounded, often by military-style assault weapons sold to civilians. There have been 130 mass shootings in the first 87 days of this year. Thirty-three of these mass killings have taken place in schools and colleges. It’s fair to say mass killings in the US have become systemic. Thom Hartmann asks: Do you know what .223 calibre bullets from an AR15 do to the bodies of children gunned down in schools? Maybe we should face this brutal reality. Maybe, Hartmann asks, America needs an Emmett Till moment. We have enough systematic crises in our country – residential segregation, corrupt lending practices in our banking system, barriers to home ownership for people of colour, schools dependent upon local property taxes, environmental injustices affecting the health of people of colour, the criminal justice system with its policing and sentencing practices linked to race, the school to prison pipeline, redlining and voter suppression policies – but the systemic slaughter of our citizens? What has become of this country? Marjorie Taylor Greene – who has introduced legislation to have Antifa declared a terrorist organisation after being given legitimacy by being featured on the famed television program 60 Minutes – blames strict gun control on school shootings. It’s that kind of insanity that makes foreigners think there is something in the water system here that has driven Americans mad. Instead of the water system, try looking at Fox News, Twitter, 4Chan, Telegram and Kiwi Farms and the hate-filled Republicans who are blaming the most recent mass killings on ‘trans terrorism.’ At a recent NRA convention in South Dakota, Governor Kristi Noem bragged that her almost two-year-old granddaughter, ‘Little Miss Addy,’ already owns a shotgun and a rifle, and a pony named Sparkles. Is this to protect Little Miss Addy from trans activists? Or from her future high school teachers who might want to teach her something called ‘slavery’? Research shows that states with lax gun laws suffer from more mass shootings than those that have stricter rules, and yet American lawmakers are banning drag, making life hell for transgender people, while pro-gun activists are calling for less strict gun regulations. In 2020, gun violence became the single biggest cause of death in children in the US, taking over from traffic accidents and yet GOP lawmakers across the US have introduced nearly 500 anti-trans bills this year. Christian nationalists are calling for a Holy War against trans people, some claiming that trans people are part of armed militias set on killing Christian children. It’s sad to see how our politics today are dominated by trans athletes in high school, Donald Trump, the Maga Jesus and America’s senior paedophile, Joe Biden. Marjorie Taylor Greene accuses Biden of being a paedophile because he personally interacts with young people who, like him, have stuttering problems. What a sick, pathetic and eminently dangerous political party the Republicans have become.
In The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment, Thom Hartmann warns of the epidemic faced by America today directly associated with the increasing number of guns in the country, which, in turn, is also linked to ‘the racial fears of white men who bought guns in record numbers for eight years during the time in office of America’s first black president.’ The NRA (National Rifle Association) was creating a panic by suggesting that Obama was preparing to take away everybody’s guns at any minute. A landmark 1999 study from researchers Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins has been replicated numerous times, showing ‘that the main correlation – far surpassing mental illness, socioeconomic status, or race – that could be defined as causal in predicting the rates of gun deaths is a simple number: the number of guns distributed among society.’ The number of children hospitalised and killed each year in the US from firearm-related injuries based on their states’ gun legislation found twice as many paediatric firearm deaths in states with the most lenient gun regulations compared with states where gun laws are strictest, and this is true even after adjusting for poverty, unemployment and education rates. Firearm-related injuries are the second leading cause of death among children in the United States, and Hartmann writes soberingly that in states with lenient laws, children die at alarmingly greater rates.
America has more guns in civilian hands than any other country in the world. Gun culture attracts all kinds of personalities, such as Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kari Lake, the Regan, Goneril and Lady Macbeth of modern American politics, and Jim Jordan, the current conniving, gun-toting Iago of the House. While not all gun nuts are villains, it is nevertheless clear that current gun laws are untethered from reality. Hartmann strikingly reports that America has a bit more than 4 per cent of the world’s population but holds almost 50 per cent of all the guns in civilian hands worldwide, amounting to more than 390 million guns. And the more guns a society has, the more gun deaths it will experience, thanks to the fanatical army of NRA lobbyists who, during Obama’s presidency, fomented rumours that Obama was going to imprison gun owners in FEEMA camps or unused military facilities. Hartmann sketches a brutal history of gun violence in America, beginning with White Europeans who partook of ‘a hemisphere-wide campaign of racial genocide, pulling off the largest multigenerational mass murder in the history of the world.’ They needed guns for their genocidal acts, lots of them. Hartmann writes:
In 1992, historian David Stannard set out to determine how many Native Americans were killed, both directly at the barrel of a gun and indirectly by disease and loss of land/food, by European invaders to the Americas. His best estimate puts Hitler to shame: white people killed more than 100 million Native Americans between 1492 and today … and the killing continues, in subtler ways than previous generations could have imagined.
It was in the years following the Civil War that private gun ownership expanded exponentially. According to Hartmann, ‘The explosion of guns in private hands was in part because of the rise of private rifle clubs and paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and, in part, because of savvy marketing by Oliver Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.’ Hartmann traces America’s gun culture directly to the ‘history of slavery and Native American genocide,’ adding that ‘this nation’s story is one of the most genocidal in the modern history of the world.’ What a legacy we have, and it is no wonder that pundits such as Tucker Carlson are determined to protect the gun rights of ‘legacy Americans’ of the ‘the stand back and stand by’ crowd.
Right-wing Daily Wire commentator Charlie Kirk exemplifies the very worst of American political ideology and morality when he argues that tens of thousands of annual firearm-related deaths in the United States are worth it if America is to keep its Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms. So, Americans are to accept these death-by-gun horrors and school shootings as the price of liberty and freedom. Which begs the question: What do these Second Amendment boosters mean by freedom, by liberty?
Hartmann is absolutely correct in arguing that, ‘at its core, the absolutist pro-gun arm-America crusade is inextricably intertwined with a Christian nationalist, white supremacist movement that believes white men are destined to rid America of what they call ‘mud races’ and ‘deviants.’ So, we have the NRA defending 18-year-olds purchasing AR-15s, and we have President Trump extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Un, President Xi and Putin. Trump recently tested the loyalty of his supporters by offering them a slice of pepperoni pizza from which he had just taken a voracious bite. ‘Does anybody want a piece that I’ve eaten?’ he shouted, before taking a bite from the slice. That his supporters replied ‘No!’ in unison may have been an indication that he is no longer the God-King for whom fans would eagerly lap up the worms, beetles, aphids and slugs from the soles of his golf shoes after a dozen rounds of golf played in a drizzle.
Yes, Trump is back at it again. Praising Putin at the same time as Putin is sending rockets into Ukrainian neighbourhoods, killing children. Hartmann puts it like this:
When Marjorie Taylor Greene talks about a ‘national divorce,’ or Sharon Angle and Donald Trump warn of ‘Second Amendment solutions’ to Democrats winning elections, or Greg Abbott says he’s going to pardon a man who murdered a BLM protester, or Ron DeSantis parades Black men in shackles in front of the cameras for ‘illegally voting,’ they’re all saying the same thing.
They’re proclaiming that their version of America is the America of the 1930s, when white men ran the country, women were men’s playthings, gays and lesbians were in the closet, Jews kept their heads down and racial minorities ‘knew their place.’
In the 40 years since the beginning of the Reagan Revolution – one kicked off by Reagan proclaiming ‘states’ rights’ in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where 3 civil rights workers were brutally murdered – America has gone from having around 30 guns for every 100 people (like Canada today) to over 120 guns for every 100 people today.
Part IV: Marxism and Socialism
Luis: At the same time, they are bandying about the words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ to denigrate any effort that supports equity, diversity and justice.
Peter: Yes, but many Republicans attack socialism without knowing what socialism is. For Marxists, it refers to the transformation of human relations at the point of production and in society as a whole. It’s not about making market relations the same as those on the shop floor; it is very different from statist socialism or the communism of the former Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc countries, which ran on state capitalist social relations (as Raya Dunayevskaya has famously argued). Marx used the following terms interchangeably to refer to post-capitalist society, according to Peter Hudis:
Marx used many terms to refer to a post-capitalist society – positive humanism, socialism, Communism, realm of free individuality, free association of producers, etc. The notion that ‘socialism’ and ‘Communism’ are distinct historical stages is alien to his work and only entered the lexicon of Marxism after his death.
I’m often asked what education means in today’s world. One of the most important features of education has to do with gaining a critical comprehension of capitalism, of the nature of capital’s social universe out of which our subjectivities and narrative identities are fashioned. Marx has given us a vocabulary for interrogating the social contexts most impacting our lives. It is a lexicon of liberation. With it, he reminds us that capital grounds all social mediation as a form of value and that the substance of labour itself must be fundamentally understood if we are to make any headway against the exploitation of American workers, those who toil in factories and warehouses, in the mines and the fields, and in the barrios of our nation’s inner cities. Because the logic of capitalist work has invaded all forms of human sociability, we need to examine the particular forms that labour takes within capitalism. Value, as Marx uses the term, is a social relation, an abstract social structure. This value form of labour constitutes our very social universe, one that has been given life and substance and meaning by the logic of capital. Mike Neary and Glenn Rikowski (2000) have described value as the ‘very matter and anti-matter of Marx’s social universe.’
I want to be clear that the production of value is not the same as the production of wealth since the production of value is transitory, that is, it is historically specific and emerges whenever labour assumes its dual character of concrete and abstract labour. According to Marx, the commodity form has a contradictory nature whose expansive capacity takes the form of labour power. Labour power is the supreme commodity, the source of all value. Marx viewed the commodity as highly unstable, as non-identical since its use value is subsumed by its existence as value-in-motion or by what we have come to know as ‘capital’ (value is always in motion because of the increase in capital’s productivity that is required to maintain expansion). Glenn Rikowski has done important work in this area.
Luis: So, the question emerges: What kind of labour creates value?
Peter: Exactly. I would argue, with Marx, that it is abstract universal labour linked to a certain organisation of society under capitalism. The dual aspect of labour within the commodity (use value and exchange value) enables one single commodity – money – to act as the value measure of the commodity. Money, as a social relationship, represents labour in its abstract form. There needs to be more analysis of the fetishism of the commodity form and its contradictory nature. One of the key insights here is that wage slavery under capitalism offers a space of possibility denied to slaves in the colonial plantations of the southern United States. Workers today can never be reduced to their labours as purchased by the capitalist since their bodies are not sold to the capitalist but only their capacity to labour, that is, their availability to labour for the capitalist. The worker today retains an excess that African slaves did not have. That excess creates the possibility of bringing down the capitalist system.
Labour can be viewed in this sense – as capital’s human face. Capitalist relations of production become hegemonic precisely when the logic of capitalist work is expanded and takes over the universe of human sociability; that is, when the process of the production of abstraction conquers the concrete processes of production to the detriment of conviviality and agreeableness – sociability. We need to focus our struggle on developing new forms of human sociability that are not dependent upon the value form of wealth that is historically specific to capitalism – that perverted form of value that is designed to augment value. And this form, as we have come to realise, is totalising and universalising and continues to extinguish hope for the future. But, as a Freirean, I cannot succumb to fatalism. With understanding Marx, shards of hope can be pieced together to shield us from despair.
Marx takes great pains to show that the capitalist does not actually purchase the workers’ labour but rather their capacity to labour – their labour power. In slave societies, the master buys the slave’s body. But with wage labour, the capitalist purchases the workers’ availability. The capitalist can never fully command the worker or fully exhaust the worker’s subjectivity. There is always a measure of embodied resistance, an opportunity for the worker to resist capture. This congealed resistance is built into the contract and is a constituent feature of the agreement between the capitalist and the worker, as the worker has the option not to enter into negotiation with the capitalist. The problem is that the worker depends on such a contract to survive, and it is in this sense that we can talk about wage slavery. But if enough workers refuse the contract and negotiate amongst themselves, a new contract can be won from the capitalist that can bring us closer to an alternative to capitalism. This is part of the class struggle. We always come back to the question of class, so much so the question of class can be seen as recursive, iterative, spiralling, cyclical and systemic. It often seems as though we live on a Moebius strip. Class exploitation on a system scale won’t be resolved as long as we rule out socialism, which the bourgeoise is exceptionally good at doing. The bourgeoisie has not compelled humankind to come to its senses. As Marx and Engels wrote more than 150 years ago in the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
To the extent that wokeness can be identified with ‘identity politics,’ to the exclusion of class struggle and the importance of creating a post-capitalist future, I agree with leftist critics of wokeness. Here I agree with Slavoj Zizek, who captures today’s situation perfectly when he writes:
Western political correctness (‘wokeness’) has displaced class struggle, producing a liberal elite that claims to protect threatened racial and sexual minorities in order to divert attention from its members’ own economic and political power. At the same time, this lie allows alt-right populists to present themselves as defenders of ‘real’ people against corporate and ‘deep state’ elites, even though they, too, occupy positions at the commanding heights of economic and political power.
Ultimately, both sides are fighting over the spoils of a system in which they are wholly complicit. Neither side really stands up for the exploited or has any interest in working-class solidarity. The implication is not that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are outdated notions – as one often hears – but rather that culture wars have displaced class struggle as the engine of politics.
Luis: It is important to understand that capitalism creates a social universe in which human relations take on the form of relations between things – human beings become commodities.
Peter: So true, Luis. However, human beings are never fully absorbed by the object. Yes, workers are transformed into human capital, but there is enough of an excess of subjectivity available that enables the worker to exclaim: ‘I am NOT capital!’ The worker can describe what it is about capital that is declaimed. And with enough solidarity among workers, the worker can move from the ‘not’ to the ‘am’ and claim the positive within the negative, that is, the worker can describe, often as a scream, ‘I AM a human being, and I AM more than a commodity’! Capitalism cannot totalise a human being, cannot annul human subjectivity because capitalism is always contingent upon the historical conditions that produce it, and those conditions are not fully hegemonic but always leaky. ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’ as Leonard Cohen has opined. It is true that capitalism produces value. A commodity’s value is determined not by the actual amount of time taken to produce it but by the socially necessary labour time calculated on a global level. The capitalist system is a circular system in which abstract labour is valued over concrete labour. Abstract labour is valorised – it is given value because it accumulates profit and capital according to a social average dependent on technological innovations, the rate at which it is determined by the laws of competition. Work that does not produce a profit is not considered to be important. Labour is valued only insofar as it helps accumulate profit. Abstract labour that augments value produces profit and keeps the capitalist machine running. In this sense, we can say that abstract labour is the substance of value, it is self-expanding value, as Peter Hudis puts it. Hudis writes that abstract labour ‘is an endless quest for an infinite magnitude – in a world of limited, finite resources.’
Socialists from New York to Kyiv understand how important it is to look beyond the social relations of capitalist production embodied in both the neoliberal crony capitalism that dominates both the US and Ukraine. But the far-right would sooner burn books on Marxist economics than read them, echoing the blatherskites and spinous lickspittles of Trump who, on January 6, 2021, stormed the Capitol Building, scattering pell-mell beneath the apotheotic gaze of George Washington, their redcoat MAGA hats perched upon empty brainpans, their feet tracking milky faeces along the hallways.
The Republicans know that Putin is no fan of communism or socialism. That’s what makes him attractive to many on the far right. Russia is fighting a religious war against Western moral corruption and degeneracy. National conservatives in the US are on board with Putin in their condemnation of the GLBTQ and trans communities. Russia denounces gay pride marches while the US has singled out drag queen performances.
Luis: A short time ago, Republicans passed a resolution condemning socialism that I would describe as ridiculous, for all the ignorance they showed about what socialism actually is. This view of socialism by Republicans opens up the possibility of attacking the few remaining social networks and social relations that still are in place in our country to support people, such as social security, that with this resolution could be labelled as socialist policy and thereby get destroyed.
Peter: Yes! Edward Hunt has noted that the recent anti-socialism resolution passed by the House of Representatives is a blanket condemnation of socialism ‘in all its forms,’ including democratic socialism and eco-socialism, despite the long history of the US ‘working with socialist allies and trading partners around the world.’ This animus directed at socialism is, of course, nothing new, and can be traced back to the 1919 imprisonment of Eugene Debs, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (I was a member of the IWW for a brief time, Luis), to the successful overthrow of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, in 1973, to an attempted coup of the Chavez government in Venezuela in 2002 (the latter of which, as you know Luis, I was privileged to work). Republicans love to denigrate Democrats and discredit their social programs by taking turns at condemning socialism. The Republican Party is bedevilled by oafish poltroons whose pronouncements continue to hold integrity hostage; they remain persistent in discussing socialism in high dudgeon, as if Bernie Sanders was morally equivalent to Joseph Stalin. Edward Hunt quotes John Rose (R-TN): ‘Whether it is communism, Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, anarchism, democratic socialism, ecosocialism or liberal socialism,’ explained John Rose (R-TN), ‘none of these ideologies should, God willing, ever be implemented in the United States.’
Luis: From your perspective, do you think that capitalism is in crisis again?
Peter: Capitalism has entered an ‘organic crisis’ due to overaccumulation, unsustainable levels of personal debt, the transfer of wealth from labour to wealthy capitalists, and other reasons analysed by Richard Wolff, such as the increasing use of computer technology that has tragically replaced workers, the movement of production to other parts of the world, where wages are lower, the shrinking demand for labour in the US as women joined the paid workforce in large numbers, and the large influx of immigrants. Yet as more women joined the workforce, they made cities generally more productive and increased wages. So many people looking for work means that employers no longer needed to give raises to attract and keep employees. Presently, the working class is not sufficiently class conscious, nor does it meet the level of organisation that would enable it to create the conditions for a victory for socialism. Who is popular with the working class? Trump. Not only is Trump popular with the working class, but he is also popular with the petty bourgeoisie. Thomas Hummel writes that during a crisis of capital, the petty bourgeoise search irrationally for scapegoats for their suffering since they can’t comprehend sufficiently the workings of the capitalist system that would enable them to institute a plan to salvage it:
[It] is not only the working class that suffers during a crisis – the intermediate sections of society, whom Marxists often refer to as the ‘petty bourgeoisie,’ are also threatened with ruin. There arises within these middle layers what the German Marxist Michael Heinrich has referred to as a ‘blinkered negation of commodity fetishism.’ This is a fancy way of saying that since these middle layers are faced with a contradiction between the objective force of failing capitalism and their subjective interest in capitalism’s maintenance, they can only find irrational explanations for their suffering – in a ‘Jewish world conspiracy’ uniting socialists and finance capitalists in a mission to destroy western civilisation as in ‘traditional’ fascism, a ‘globalist’ conspiracy a la Alex Jones, or a cabal of space reptilians plotting to import Brown and Black people into western countries as in QAnon. They are unable to problematise the system itself. This contradiction explains the Nazis’ contrasting a ‘Jewish capitalism’ – international, based in high finance and banking that was out of reach for the petty bourgeoisie, and a good ‘German capitalism’ based upon small businesses and the small-scale family farm.
Hummel goes on to say that ‘since history has shown that the petty bourgeoisie are incapable of acting independently but must act in the interests of one of the two main classes of society, they end up acting in the interest of the bourgeoisie to preserve capitalism.’ The main scapegoats in the US have historically been immigrants and descendants of slaves.
Part V: Marxism and Catholicism
Luis: Presently, we are witnessing the closing of many businesses during and after COVID. Many people are out of jobs.
Peter: It’s a terrible predicament. Fear of losing one’s job because the business or factory is closing is one of the most prominent fears. Jean-Paul Sartre once put it this way in his Critique of Dialectical Reasoning: ‘To fire workers because a factory is closing is a sovereign act that tacitly assumes the fundamental right to kill.’
In his book Being and the Messiah, José Porfirio Miranda argues that this feeling that we have a right to kill ‘lies at a deeper level of human existence. Its manifestations change over time, but the feeling that produces these manifestations does not change.’ The bourgeoisie is often not aware that such a feeling exists at an unconscious level. It can exist at an unconscious level in all of us, Miranda writes, even in non-capitalists. This realisation does not mean that before a true revolution can occur, people must first change because this is simply an argument for the indefinite postponement of the revolution. We must make efforts to expropriate the means of production as soon as possible. But we must recognise that we still need to solve the problem of power. But we cannot reduce the revolution to the taking of power. We need to recognise that capitalism has captured the very core of our being. We must, Miranda tells us, destroy an oppression ‘that has lasted thousands of years.’ He writes: ‘Unless we realise the pervasiveness of the evil, we want to combat there is no hope that the coming revolution, which indeed has already begun, will be a true revolution. If we imagine ourselves to be immune from this evil, the one thing that we can be sure of is that when we accomplish the revolution, we will be re-establishing stronger than ever, the bourgeois oppression we carry inside ourselves.’ Feuerbach argued that ‘material conditions determine human behaviour and inescapably mould our attitudes.’ Marx takes a different direction by arguing that the educator has to be educated and re-educated by the revolutionary. The question becomes, what does value consist of? Miranda is correct when he writes: ‘exchange-value is a construct of the human spirit, and this exchange-value is the dominant element in all economic systems, which in turn, Marx says, are the determining factor of history.’
Capitalists exchange the labour power of the worker for a wage. And this is where the evil is rooted. Exchange value is not an inherent property of all commodities. It is instead a ‘product of the mind, a very functional entity of reason, a societal tenet and invention of culture….’ What is the relationship between value and labour? You can only extract surplus value from someone who works – the reason for exchange value is to make people work and consent to the violence of the capitalist. Miranda makes this clear when he writes: ‘Out of what they produce by their day’s labour, the workers receive in return what they need to reproduce their labour-power. The remainder of what they produce is surplus value, and the entrepreneur keeps it.’ How many goods are necessary for the sustenance reproduction of a worker? The answer is: ‘the necessary minimum is the point below which the proletarians rebel because less remuneration is absolutely intolerable to them.’ And these necessities are determined by customs, culture, religious traditions and by social, juridical and political pressures. The answer cannot be reduced to ‘matter.’ Marx knew this all too well. Capitalism appeals to people’s desire for personal gain. We must transcend this law of self-interest in order to create a lasting revolution. This so-called law is not a part of human nature, and it is not, I repeat, not part of what theologians claim as ‘original sin.’ Besides, original sin is contingent (according to the Council of Trent) and can be transcended. It can be eradicated from human society. The tendency to oppress and to injure or hurt others is not natural. We can eradicate it only if we first learn the extent to which we have been thoroughly infected by capitalism. We are the accomplices of capitalism, and it is time that we prevent capitalism from continuing to deceive us through the establishment of a bourgeois system that predetermines the conclusion before we even begin our investigation. Miranda argues, and I am in agreement with him, that we need to see reality from a ‘new field of being.’ This new field of being requires us to be touched by the voice of our conscience and make the required decisions according to our conscience. It proceeds, in other words, from a moral imperative. This is why liberation theologians begin with a preferential option for the poor.
Peter McLaren with Ernesto Cardenal
I can be dragooned into submission by the forces of capitalism, but these same forces cannot coerce me into compliance with its objectives. But I can prevail only if I reject the material causes that engendered capitalism. I do not look to the ‘essences of history’ as a guide but to its contingencies. We find the answer in the outcry of the other whom we have oppressed. As Miranda writes, ‘the outcry of the neighbour in need … [is] … the only true content of the voice of conscience.’ The voice is that of otherness and is absolute; it demands decision and my responsibility. The idea that Being requires decision is key. This is how history is made. This is how justice prevails over the law of humankind, when the need for profit and exploitation no longer exists.
Luis: As you mentioned earlier, Miranda establishes a very interesting connection between Marxism and Catholicism, or Christianism. Could you extend on that?
Peter: Miranda, a Christian and a Marxist, perceives God’s ‘implacable imperative’ as ‘the elimination of injustice and death.’ He writes:
A god who intervenes in history to elicit religious adoration of himself and not to undo the hell of cruelty and death that human history has become is an immoral god in the deepest sense of the word. A god who is reconciled or merely indifferent to the pain of human beings is a merciless god, a monster, not the ethical God whom the Bible knows. We would be morally obliged to rebel against such a god, even if our defeat were inevitable. Equally immoral is the god for whom the end of injustice and innocent suffering is a secondary or subordinate imperative.… The most outstanding characteristic of our time is the demand for total justice…. A materialist should be the last to deny the possibility of a miracle: If justice is attainable, surely the defeat of death is not in a compartment distinct from that realisation. Human beings could not carry out reforms and revolutions if material being itself were not compelling them. Their basis for action, their impulse towards revolution, is the very being which of itself tends towards an eschaton and of which people form the medium.
I have always said that with critical pedagogy, ethics precedes epistemology. The question ‘who are we’ comes after the question, ‘from where do we speak?’ We speak first of all from a position of solidarity with the oppressed, or we do not speak at all. The question ‘who are we’ is reserved for the seminar room or classroom, but everyday critical pedagogy is our preferential obligation to serve the poor. The implacable now of the moral imperative of justice and love for all is where God is revealed. Which is why God can be discovered on the picket line or on the shop floor or in the long march towards freedom, or when we leave our self-absorbed moral enclosure and are summoned by our conscience to defend those voices vulnerable to deception and attack. It means that we heed every cry of suffering, every cry from those broken by history.
I’ve always felt a strong affinity for the work of Miranda since my first encounter with his work in the 1980s. His work has helped to inform my understanding of liberation theology. The debates over the role of liberation theology in the global Catholic church of the twentieth century were of profound significance and, according to Ole Jakob Løland, ‘constitute one of the major intraecclesial conflicts of the twentieth century.’
The advent of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as head of the global church in 2013, the canonisation of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Pope Francis ‘had decided to unblock the beatification process of the Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Romero, hailed as a saint for liberation theology ever since the assassination of him in 1980’), and Pope Francis’s closeness to Gustavo Gutiérrez ‘signalled a new approach to the liberation theology movement in the Vatican.’ Pope Francis has adopted certain theological ideas from liberation theology and has gestured, at least symbolically, to the important significance of liberation theology, and he has credited liberation theology with continued relevance without formally adopting liberation theology as an official position of the Catholic Church. The Pope’s critics have, unsurprisingly, accused him of ‘betraying the anti-Communism of his predecessors for rehabilitating the ‘Marxist’ liberation theology.’
Pope Francis surely rejects some aspects of liberation theology, such as its explicitly Marxist thematics and argumentation, but he has critically appropriated others. Both Pope Francis and Gustavo Gutiérrez are careful not to exaggerate the conflictive dimension of societies at the expense of the universal Christian love: ‘Conflictive social realities cannot make us forget the requirements of a universal love that does not recognise the boundaries of social class, race, or gender.’
Miranda’s position is much more explicitly Marxist than that of Francis or Gutiérrez. I agree with Miranda that human beings can know God through our capacity to respond to human suffering. Miranda admonishes us to heed God’s command to do justice since doing justice is tantamount to a knowledge of God since God actively intervenes in history. God’s purpose in human history, according to Miranda, is to deliver people from injustice, and we know this through ‘the historical event of Jesus Christ.’ Miranda sees the struggle for justice as the imperative of history. History does not operate in cycles or through the ‘eternal return of all things’ or in the linear march of progress. We can only grasp history dialectically through revolutionary praxis. History cannot be understood as contemplation but rather as a form of world-shattering praxis whose fulfilment results in love.
However, Miranda believes Marx’s dialectics did not go far enough in that Marx chose to avoid the problem of death. Neil Hinnem writes that, for Miranda, ‘Marx chooses to avoid the problem of death when he considers how the revolutionary event overcomes injustice; for Miranda, this is a failure to recognise that those who die are trapped in injustice, thus denying the universal and ultimate defeat of injustice.’ Hinnem writes: ‘Marx’s contention – that avoiding an inversion of reality demands that one cannot conceive of God – will always remain at odds with the idea of God controlling history.’ Hinnem does not agree that Marx is the Christian humanist hoped for by Miranda. But he does give Miranda credit for his ‘emphasis on seeking justice within a dialectical-historical framework – in addition to the biblical, ethical prerogative of praxis … [because it] … presses Christians to look beyond dogmatic prejudices in order to recognise as allies those who might identify themselves as Marxists, so long as their aim is to change the world for the sake of justice.’
Luis: What Is your stance on the connection that Miranda establishes with Marxism?
Peter: Yes, I have discussed Marxism and Catholicism, mostly in discussion around liberation theology. Basically, my position is this: I agree with Denys Turner (see his Marxism and Christianity), who argues that ‘morality under capitalism is Marxism in so far as Marxism is able to specify the conditions of the retrieval of moral talk from bourgeois ideology.’ All that we can make of morality under capitalism is Marxism. I say this while recognising that Marxism makes no specific moral invocations. I use Marxism to indicate the material basis for moral talk when participating, as we must, in the class struggle under capitalist social relations. I am not proposing a communist society as a moral ideal. No, far from that. Nor am I contending that Marxism should replace the enterprise of morality as it exists in bourgeois social contexts – as in some kind of ‘fideistic scientism’ that Turner refers to. But in any case, Marxists must not eschew responsibility for the historical record of Marxism (which is egregious if we look at the scorched earth campaigns by Stalinist amoralist states), just as bourgeois apologists must not relieve themselves of their own responsibility for their crimes in the name of human rights. But Marxism does not, in Turner’s view, possess the resources to condemn with any consistency its own historical record. And I agree. Marxists often retreat to a position of ‘the ends justify the means’ position when it comes to their own historical legacy. The larger struggle is to bring about a morality that is not simply displaced into the future, leaping across previous moral theories and practices, to land on its feet somewhere else. Christianity, as I have maintained in my work, may, in this context, form part of the solution.
But it is a difficult and complex task, and I won’t go into the minutiae of that challenge now. While I have cited the work by Jose Porfirio Miranda in many of my works, maintaining that communism is very apparent in the teachings of Jesus, I am not saying that communism and Christianity are essentially the same thing. After all, communists try to destroy Christianity as part of their own self-constitution as a science. We need to raise the question: Is Christianity unrescuable ideologically, or is Marxism its rescued truth? Any attempt to answer such questions must account for Marx’s critique of religion as ideological. Christianity must account for its relationship to the material world. Is the real Christ present to history or absent from history? Is Christ’s presence in the world actually the form of Christ’s absence, and so on? The main point that I have been making over the years is that Christ’s presence can never be realised fully under the conditions of capitalism. Marxism shows the impossibility of morality under capitalism. Marxism remains significant in the ability of its revolutionary praxis to achieve the conditions of the possibility of morality.
Scientific Marxism, however, fails to accomplish such justice, as Turner has revealed so eloquently in his work. Its materiality demands the abolition of capitalism as a necessary condition. Bourgeois morality is incapable of achieving its own truth. As such, Marxism is morally negative. Christian love as it is currently practised cannot help with this – with the exception of liberation theology. Yet, at the same time, Marxism cannot identify the true name of that which justifies its own praxis: God. It recognises God in the absence of God. But God’s absence is the characteristic form of the divine presence, and, on this, I agree with Turner. Somebody should tell the Marxists. Well, I have been trying to do that. Perhaps not very persuasively, but I am not yet done.
Part VI: The Death Knell of Education
Luis: In these times when fascist perspectives are used to organise our societies, one component that is also under attack is education. What is your analysis of the connections between these political views, capitalism and education?
Peter: Let’s begin with the question of universities. Universities, for example, are instrumental to the needs of capital. We need to re-engineer the critical commons to reanimate the ‘general intellect,’ repristinate our ecosystem and take on the challenge of capital. As it currently stands, mass intellectuality as a form of living labour is not yet equipped to stand firm against the governing forces of empire and include capitalism as a set of social relations that must be transcended if society is to prevail unmolested by systemic crises after crises of capital. Mass intellectuality as general social knowledge riven with contradictions, as modes of cooperative engagements with capitalist social relations as well as acquiescence to its forms of containment, and including collective intellectual resistance and acts of transgression, has revealed that not all spaces have been colonised by value augmentation and groomed into commodity forms. Fortunately for democracy, capital cannot contain all mass intellectuality, as teachers as public intellectuals have strikingly revealed through their pedagogic acts of resistance to the banking model of education described by Freire. They have broken their socially defined roles as both learners and teachers. And their students have followed in kind. Hegemony is porous, and what gets leaked can further help to pry open spaces for collaborative, participatory and constructivist forms of knowledge for the exercise of cognitive democracy. There is, in other words, a residue of subjectivity, of agency, that can be cultivated if there exists the right critical ‘soil’ to nourish it.
This is the primary task of critical pedagogy. Universities can serve as the connective tissue for opening up social knowledge premised on cooperation rather than competition driven by the social relations of capitalist production and capitalism’s need for value augmentation. Mike Neary and Joss Winn have put forward the idea of the university as a worker-cooperative with teachers and students as producers, as protagonistic agents furthering the development of socialism for the commons, for the public good. This is important work. Redesigning and repurposing universities as workers’ communes – places of solidarity with social movements, new and old, as well as labour unions and teachers’ unions that may be open to socialist alternatives – is a project that holds promise. Winn and Neary argue, correctly, in my view, that universities are capitalist employers who reproduce academic labour in the form of student labour. Knowledge that is produced in this form of organisation is powered through value production (the extraction of profits) and exists mainly as a commodity form, as dead labour in the Marxist sense. A worker-owned and managed cooperative university would be able to control the means of knowledge production and potentially produce new forms of social knowledge through a ‘common ownership’ form of property relations that transforms the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ in order to create an ‘academic commons.’ This commons would be designed for the public good, for the good of the community. This could bring about a new type of student-teacher relationship through forms of solidarity, reciprocity, equality and mutuality in terms of the division of labour. The neoliberal business models based on institutional precedents could, in this new model, be replaced by Freirean dialogical models grounded in historical materialist analysis that stresses the development of critical consciousness and protagonistic agency (another way of describing a philosophy of praxis) and what Winn and Neary refer to as the Student as Producer. Gone would be the competitive branding and marketing of our universities in favour of a reorientation to the pursuit of both truth and justice.
Luis: Fascist (MAGA) Republican politicians are trying to control any critical teaching in the school. They want to prohibit any teaching that could be related to race, diversity or equity. Florida is the State that is moving faster toward that kind of control. Even though they accuse Democrat policies on education of indoctrinating kids in the schools, they hide or don’t want to recognise publicly that they are indoctrinating children toward ignorance, lack of critical thinking and the destruction of our democracy.
Peter: This is one of the great tragedies of educational leadership. Yes, one example of this attack on democracy is the recent bill that Senator Brodeur of Florida has proposed. That bill will require bloggers who choose to criticise Florida politicians (such as Governor DeSantis) to register with a state media regulator for the purpose of disclosing who is funding them. In 2014 Putin enacted a similar law to help him curtail the freedom of the press. DeSantis also wants to pass laws that would let private companies check employees’ immigration status, limit lawsuits against businesses and terminate permit requirements for concealed weapons. It seems clear that Florida is among the vanguard when it comes to creating a model for US fascism.
Well, what about education? DeSantis has a ‘Parental Rights in Education’ law (dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by opponents), but he isn’t satisfied and wants now to expand the ban on teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity to 7th and 8th graders. He also wants to get rid of gender studies classes and diversity programs across Florida’s state-funded universities. Another bill demands that teachers use the pronouns of students for the gender in which they were born from kindergarten through 12th grade (dubbed the ‘Don’t Say They’ bill by opponents).
Clearly, the pedagogy of liberation for these times requires a special militancy. A prime example of such militancy is Enrique Dussel, considered by many to be the Hegel of the global South for his systemic creation of a philosophy of liberation. Dussel, who is from Argentina but after a bomb attack on his home by paramilitary groups during the 1976 civil-military dictatorship, he began working in Mexico, has influenced generations of radical thinkers and activists, just as he has been influenced by Herbert Marcuse, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon and to José Martí and José Carlos Mariátegui and all those who called for ‘the need for a ‘second emancipation’ from Spain, Portugal and the United States. We were fortunate to have had Dussel speak at Instituto McLaren in Mexico a few years ago. Dussel believes that with the emergence of Russia and the growth of Chinese power, the end of American hegemony may be near, and the global South might have an opportunity for emancipation from the pulverising grip of the United States. He argues that decoloniality and anti-imperialism ‘must go hand in hand’ and merge into a single movement. He writes:
a decolonial intellectual, a militant intellectual, must take sides with all these medium-term processes, thinking in the long term about overcoming capitalism, building an ecological society, overcoming the use of oil and non-renewable energies. We are in a time of great changes: philosophy and critical thinking must take note of these things. Also of the pandemic, which showed the failure of neoliberalism, handing over health to private capital. This reality urgently demands that we think about what is happening and requires a great intellectual and political commitment of a militant kind. We must take up all our great ideals and apply them to attainable ends.
Dussel sees promise in liberation theology and sounds a warning against Latin American evangelical movements whose origins can be traced to the United States – the kind of evangelism that helps to support authoritarianism and intolerance. Dussel takes aim at
neo-Pentecostal churches, many of them of US origin and influence, [that] have an ideology that is much more coherent and appropriate to dependent capitalism. Unfortunately, in many cases, as happened recently in Bolivia, some sectors fervently support coups d’état, becoming anti-popular and, theologically, anti-Christian movements. For them, Latin American popular religiosity is seen as an infiltration into Christianity that must be denied. They take some texts from the Bible and give them a capitalist and individualist reading, like the de facto president Jeanine Áñez, when she entered the palace with a bible in her hand, scorning the wiphala, the Quechua-Aymara flag. This idea of fighting with the gospel against indigenous symbols is an aberration, typical of a conservative, neo-liberal and pro-US Christianity.
What Dussel hopes to achieve in Latin America has a strong resonance for those of us living in the United States who are under assault from Trumpism and the continuing neoliberalism of the Biden administration. According to Dussel,
We have to start by differentiating representative democracy from the democratic participation of the people. The question is to create institutions where the people can constitutionally participate in government. In Venezuela, for example, there is a representative power, but there is also a participatory power, which is organised at the grassroots, where the people have the possibility of coming together in the neighbourhood, in larger collectives, and then making demands on the representative power.
Dussel argues that participation must be organic and devoted to creating ‘a radically new type of State, a revolution with the institutional participation of the people.’ He argues for the necessity of breaking from the ‘plutocratic system’ of the United States and moving towards processes involving ‘a direct democracy that work their way upwards towards the constitution of a participatory national power.’
My sense is that, in the United States, there is a fear among the bourgeoise and the petty bourgeoisie that is working for the participation of people at the grassroots level will be like welcoming the kind of representatives of Trumpism that we witnessed during the January 6 insurrection. This is why programs in critical pedagogy are so important right now in our education system. DeSantis and his advisors know this, and this is one of the reasons why he is taking aim at education, turning it into a ‘banking model’ for US schools that will only serve to strengthen the ideological hegemony of the right-wing elites and preserve existing power relations.
Luis: DeSantis’ influence in the public schools in Florida will generate teacher resignations. Teachers, as intellectuals, are resisting DeSantis’ actions against diversity and superficial content and learning. In January this year, Florida had an enormous teacher shortage with 5,294 teacher vacancies.
Peter: Who can blame them? Public school teachers in Florida are now required by DeSantis to dedicate at least 45 minutes of instruction on ‘Victims of Communism Day’ to teach students about how entire populations were brutalised under communist regimes. Socialism, for that matter, is equated with communism, revealing that those leading the anti-communist agendas know very little about socialism or Marxism, since these are simply buzzwords used to frighten Americans. They are propaganda mechanisms so that when Americans are exposed to the words communism or socialism, they equate them with gulags, forced starvation and lack of freedom of speech, uniformity and the like. It is a way to teach Americans that socialism is a tyrannical form of government. These propaganda mechanisms are designed to deflect attention from the horrors of right-wing fascist regimes that have often been supported by the US, such as Pinochet’s regime in Chile. As a socialist, I have always criticised Stalinism. Democracy has always been the centrepiece of my politics, as has class struggle. Yet I have, in my work, drawn attention to the crimes committed in the name of capitalism and in the name of democracy. Totalitarian regimes should be condemned, I agree. But there is nothing in the writings of Marx and Engels that suggest the necessity of producing famines, gulags or purges to establish communist or socialist goals. There is nothing that would point to the necessity of the horrendous crimes of Nazism. Should we denounce totalitarianism and Nazism? Absolutely. But do they follow logically from the writings of Marx or Engels? No. Anti-communists want you to believe otherwise in order to let capitalism off the hook. Tyranny has often been protected in the name of democracy and freedom – think of the role of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Anti-communism is a true-denying ideology, a nuance-denying ideology that is designed to mystify the plutocratic and religiously fundamentalist elements of American democracy.
Socialism, the equitable sharing of goods and resources among the disciples of Jesus, comes right out of the Bible, as Jose Porfirio Miranda has made quite clear. Marx identified a structure of evil in capitalism which reflects Paul’s call to break from the structural sin at the heart of the Law that is steeped in structural sin, and to realise that justice can be defeated by the revolutionary event of Christ entering history – and that we need to reject and not simply try to reform systems of oppression, architectures of repression so that we can build a new creation or Kingdom founded on justice. But the propaganda against socialism is so twisted that workers struggling for their rights are automatically associated with the evils of socialism. It’s like watching the early westerns; those cowboys wearing black hats were often the bad guys, while those in the white Stetsons were often the good guys. We have come to associate those in the black hats with socialists. It’s an automatic, knee-jerk association. The same propaganda technique is being used against Antifa and Black Live Matter.
Now, does this realisation mean we hate the United States? No. Absolutely not. We enjoy many freedoms that should not be taken for granted. One way of fighting for and deepening democracy and freedom in the US is to recognise its limitations and contradictions so that we can work to expand and strengthen our rights and freedoms – this is what I call critical patriotism.
Luis: DeSantis is also attacking LGBTQ+ communities in schools.
Peter: Attacking GLBTQ+ communities seems to have taken us back to the 1950s. Or to the present-day Taliban. In 2022, Florida passed the Parental Rights in Education Act – also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law – which bans discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. This was a draconian act by a demagogic governor. Republicans think they can win this culture war debate, and they could be correct. Fear and panic often work. And it’s moral panic time! Public school teachers are using gender studies to teach your children that there is no such thing as a man or a woman! They are grooming your children to become transgender! They are teaching Critical Race Theory to your sons and daughters so that they will be ashamed of being white! White students are taught to see themselves as no better than a whip-wielding Arkansas slave master prior to January 1, 1863. You are familiar with the propaganda drill. Teachers in same-sex marriages have lost their jobs. Librarians cannot lend to students books that are blacklisted by the state education board. An Advance Placement class on African-American studies was banned for ‘indoctrination.’
DeSantis has paved the way for a revisionist history of the United States to prevail in the classroom and lecture hall. Queer theory, intersectionality, Black Lives Matter, reparations, prison abolition – acknowledging or teaching about any one of these topics or systemic injustices in American society or showing support for Black Lives Matter could place teachers in serious legal trouble. With such draconian policies, how are students able to be adequately equipped for college? How will they be able to open up new panoramas of scientific inquiry in the stifling confines of the Christian right and MAGA world? Teachers serving on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committees are having their emails searched. The presidents at 28 Florida state colleges affirmed their intention to end all ‘discriminatory DEI and CRT initiatives’ at their institutions. They view critical race theory as a partisan ideology. Back are the days when teachers were taught to remain politically neutral. Yet these college presidents have no problem asserting their own ideological positions, but because they are in keeping with the cherished educational tenets of MAGA world, we are supposed to unquestioningly follow orders. While no teacher is allowed to compel belief in analytical frameworks such as CRT, if they are identified in classroom lessons in any way, they must be presented among other competing viewpoints. Critical thinking is supposed to be acquired through an act of providential serendipity and not digging deeply into dialectical reasoning and problem-solving. Next thing you know, teachers will be forced to encourage their students to have an epistolary exchange with Newt Gingrich if they decide to risk a discussion of voting rights in America. Will that balance things out ideologically? Or, on the topic of slavery, will students be compelled to have an exchange with anti-critical race theory demagogue Christopher Rufo or other ridiculous figures from the Christian right and MAGA world? When DeSantis says he wants to mandate courses in Western Civilisation, it’s pretty clear what he wants. I don’t think he would appreciate the famous exchange that Mahatma Gandhi had with a reporter:
Reporter: What do you think of Western civilisation?
Mahatma Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.
DeSantis is trying to remove tenure (something recently achieved in Texas) and to fire teachers and administrators without cause. Good luck with attracting top-notch scholars. It’s laughable that DeSantis is against indoctrination when his approach – as in any approach – participates in indoctrination. The difference is that his indoctrination disguises itself as neutrality. Progressive and radical education also participates in some form of indoctrination but in the service of freedom and justice, not conformity and obedience. We all partake of particular assumptions and values that guide our teaching. MAGA world views teachings that are critical of certain developments in the history of the US, such as slavery, systemic racism, misogyny and gender inequality as unpatriotic, as flying in the face of American exceptionalism and leading to extreme versions of political correctness. But how can we build better communities? How can we make a difference for the common good by remaining neutral? It’s impossible. Desmond Tutu famously said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ My mentor, Paulo Freire, echoed the same sentiment: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.’ And let’s not forget the immortal words of Martin Luther King: ‘The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict … [an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.’ And we do ourselves a disservice if we forget the sage words of Elie Wiesel: ‘We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’ We live in an age in which the big lie functions as a means of fully commanding subordinates, who have to shamelessly rid themselves of all their manifest virtuousness and integrity in order to repeat abhorrent falsehoods and would then be bound to their master by humiliation and complicity. When those self-same subordinates repeat the big lie, it reveals to the public the enormous power these leaders have over their underlings, and this is precisely what forms the basis of MAGA fascism and other forms of fascism. The leader is forever able to pull the epistemological wool over the eyes of his or her followers and lead them to submit deeper and deeper to the existing power structures. We need to struggle against this hollow, essentially totalitarian ideology that commits us to believe everything and nothing and follow our convictions. We only congeal oppression by putting ourselves in the service of neutrality. We only serve as a bulwark for prevailing forms of what liberation theologians describe as social or structural sin.
Luis: DeSantis really want to destroy the teaching of history.
Peter: I agree. DeSantis wants to do that. Since he doesn’t want slavery to be taught in ways that might upset the emotional architecture of white students, for whom a path that legitimises white supremacy has been superbly laid out by the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and ideologically secured by Trumpism, I wonder what he and his fellow fascists think of the fact that the first Pilgrims to reach America seeking religious freedom were not English at all. And they did not settle in Massachusetts. Should this history be taught at all, or should it remain hidden, Mr Governor?
The problem of racism and antisemitism goes far beyond Florida. It’s a shameful national trend. The rise in antisemitism and racism directed at people of colour is a chilling reminder that we, as educators and activists, have much work to do to combat this hatred which is becoming normalised in expanding white supremacist circles of influence. Teachers need to be free to teach courses on the history of racism, slavery and antisemitism and the Holocaust, without being told that such courses are prohibited because they might make some white students feel uncomfortable. High school history classes should offer responsible courses in these topics because they are reflect great concern for the well-being of society.
Anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and racism against people of colour are among the foremost evils faced by contemporary society and they are dramatically on the rise today. Social media companies are largely responsible and must be held accountable but the rise of such personalised and institutionalised hate that we see in society today has to do with a confluence of social and cultural mediations which enable white supremacist subjectivities to flourish along ideological lines such as those found in organisations like the Patriot Front, the Nationalist Social Club, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Goyim Defense League. Young people today are trying to navigate an entangled complex of contemporary social spaces – many of them digital spaces – where they seek a sense of community with others. Too often they are welcomed into communities bound by white supremacist imperatives involving hating Jews or Black people. These communities of hate can be intensified via social media networks and over time bend a person’s desire towards accepting, enacting and even promoting antisemitism and white supremacy. Around a decade ago, I was invited to speak in Poland, and visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp with my wife, Wang Yan. Our schools have a responsibility to teach the history of how Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews across German-occupied Europe. This accounted for nearly two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. The Holocaust constitutes one of the greatest crimes humanity has ever witnessed and we need to stand alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters in solidarity against hate to make sure such crimes are never repeated. The Holocaust stands as a lesson for all of us to love and protect our fellow human beings from the racist tropes and insidious conspiracies and violence that continue to impact our societies today. The rise of antisemitism we are witnessing today can be found in the rise of Christian nationalism here in the US, which singles out Jews for discrimination. We must denounce anti-Jewish hatred and Judeophobia and racism against people of colour which is growing and which can be traced to elements within MAGA culture and elsewhere. Lawmakers need to crack down on hate crimes, including doxing.
Approximately fifty years before the Mayflower left port, French Protestant colonists who had been victims of religious wars had settled the New World in Florida at Fort Caroline, but their fate as America’s first pilgrims tragically ended in a monumental bloodbath when they were massacred in 1565 by Spanish soldiers carrying pikes, broadswords and ‘harquebus’ muskets, led by Admiral Pedro Menéndez (who mistook them as French ‘Lutherans,’ failing to recognise that the majority of these Frenchmen were Huguenots, French Protestants who followed the teachings of John Calvin, the French-born Protestant theologian). The leader of these first French pilgrims was Jean Ribault, who had been dispatched to build a colony in America in 1564. Menéndez had the head of Ribault cut into four parts, set on pikes, and displayed in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. Like the later English Pilgrims, these French Protestants were the unfortunate victims of religious wars, wars that were raging across France and much of Europe at the time. Kenneth C. Davis’s book, America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, can give you all the details. Should this bloody history, like that of slavery, be carefully monitored by Republican ideological overseers so as not to rupture our current understanding of America’s first English colonists? How many students fondly remember their Thanksgiving plays in elementary school, featuring the pilgrims and Indians sitting down together for a big meal of turkey, fresh vegetables, cornbread, cranberries and pumpkin pie? I am not saying that schoolchildren should re-enact massacres. Of course not. But at some age-appropriate point in their education, Americans need to know some uncomfortable truths about how their country was baptised in blood.
Teaching history helps us to learn much about ourselves, how the past has formed the present, and how to prepare students to become critical and active citizens who can locate themselves in current political contexts, in the important moral debates and struggles of our age. I don’t want to support settler-colonial society, of course, but, still, it is important to notice the difference between Spanish colonial society in St. Augustine and that of colonial English America. In Spanish colonial society, there was significant intermarriage with the indigenous population. Cultural mixing was prominent, whereas, in colonial English society, it was monoculturally English. Spanish colonial society was a mixture of people from a variety of countries. You had Africans, for instance, existing alongside the Spanish. You had Italians, Irish. St. Augustine presents us with a much richer historical foundation than the English colonialism with which Americans so readily identify today, especially the Christian nationalist, white supremacist communities. But Sir Francis Drake put an end to all that. But don’t tell that to the Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazis, the Oath Keepers, or the Klan.
So what is an explanation for all of this malaise? There are many reasons, but the one that I focus on with students is the power of social media. And I often use Fox News as an example.
A large part of the increase in the super-adrenalised madness of today’s culture wars and political tribalism in the US can be placed at the foot of the biochemical algorithm spawned by Fox News decades ago and delivered daily on demand directly into the cerebrospinal fluid of America’s red-eyed, teeth gnashing, Trump-loving hate addicts. And such hate is not simply directed at liberals and Democrats but is significantly racialised against people of colour. Thom Hartmann explains:
While social media’s addictive nature mostly comes from the delivery system – the algorithm could be likened to the syringe used with heroin – the addictive nature of conventional media like hate-talk radio and Fox ‘News’ is attributable to its content.
Just like heroin provides a biochemical jolt that takes away the cares of the day and replaces them with itself, hate-talk radio and Fox ‘News’ jolt their consumers with the dopamine rush of hate and bigotry while providing the assurance that they’re part of an exclusive in-group that — unlike the rest of the nation – truly understands what’s happening.
The alternative reality provided consumers of hate-talk radio and Fox ‘News’ is analogous to the bubble world in which heroin and Oxycontin addicts live their daily lives. Everything revolves around that daily jolt – the regular adrenaline and endorphin rush – of outrage and ‘secret knowledge.’
Astonishing research reported four months ago in The Washington Post found that Fox ‘News’ is so frequently associated with bigotry and hate that ‘just tuning in to Fox News might be enough to activate racial bias.’
These algorithms found in hate talk media are not pharmaceuticals that can be regulated – they are protected forms of speech in an America that is becoming more fascist by the day. And this country born of violence will continue to be irrevocably fractured and splintered along racial and political lines as long as media outlets like Fox News continue to enable half of the population to mainline its ‘heroin of hate,’ as long as the ‘suppliers’ of this hate profit financially from the creation of its armies of junkies, as long as newscasters like Tucker Carlson are willing to lie if it helps raise the net worth of Fox News stocks.
Luis: Peter, you have been contributing to the construction of critical alternatives in education for more than 40 years. What is your gaze on the dark landscape we are facing right now and your practice of critical pedagogy? How do you feel about it?
Peter: After 50 years of teaching and engaging in revolutionary struggle along with so many of my comrades, I feel I’ve been climbing a stony hill, simultaneously sliding backwards, and, to my eternal dismay, always returning to the bottom where I first started my long ascent towards freedom, arms and legs still flailing in the rubble, the environment surrounding me more toxic politically and ideologically than ever before. We always seem to wormhole ahead, jumping too far into our dreams, ending our journey in some frozen train yard of regret, huddled in our memories, our tin cups clutched in our frail and trembling hands containing a thousand spinning galaxies. We mistook star shells illuminating the battlefields of Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Yemen for the Milky Way. While America’s growing number of billionaires has found a path to increase their wealth by nearly one-third since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and by nearly 90% over the past decade, millions of the world’s poor are still travelling the Darién Gap, children and sick relatives slung across their shoulders, living on bare hope. Hope, that is all that remains for revolutionaries and cultural workers when optimism fails. And it can be distilled from our refusal to resign ourselves to despair. And it can become once again a potent force for renewal. But that takes time. And time is no longer a luxury we can afford.
Luis: Thank you so much.