Click icon for pdf file.
First published at RED—Radical Education Department: An autonomous collective training cultural warriors for a radical internationalist Left. http://www.radicaleducationdepartment.com.
Incite Items ISSN # pending.
Why RED, Why Now?
The Radical Education Department organically grew out of our orchestrated direct action campaign, as Nova Resistance, against the over-funded and over-securitized lecture by racist eugenicist Charles Murray at Villanova University in the spring of 2017 (click here to read a recent post about this action). However, its roots, for some of us, stretch back further to our activities at Occupy Philly, as well as our collective publishing of Occupy Philly: Machete. In what follows, I reflect on why we decided to launch RED in the summer of 2017.
I have always strongly believed in the importance of collective organizing and institution-building in order to maximize our agency by working with others to construct platforms for the future. In my various experiences organizing and founding alternative institutions, however, I have also come to learn that many projects never get off of the ground because they are all too quickly ensnared in the bramble of petty debate. This can include such things as individuals being more invested in their subjective preoccupations than in collective action or—particularly in intellectual circles—the sophistication Olympics, in which pedantic posturing and problematization exercise their domineering, disheartening and imperial rule over anything practical, tactical or productive. When a group of us came together so seamlessly to contest the promotion of white supremacist misogyny and top-down class warfare on a conservative college campus, it struck me that we had the baseline of shared convictions that would allow us to move ahead productively with other projects.
Indeed, once we started sharing ideas, I became convinced that our modus operandi of diagonal or transversal organization was a powerful practical solution to other models I had encountered. In my experience, if the verticalism of a top-down chain of command can smother important ideas from below, the horizontalism à la Occupy can sometimes foster an endless plethora of ideas with little or no direction. Our decision to organize diagonally—by which I refer to our conviction, for instance, that a RED endeavor be defined as anything that at least two members agree on—meant that we could do away with a single leader without bottoming out in obligatory consensus. This form of organizing, which overlaps with some of what I had been trying to thematize in my writings and interviews on the Nuit Debout movement in France, has meant that we can work very efficiently and autonomously without needing to constantly meet to debate our next steps. It is an enormous boon, in this regard, that we are all on the same wavelength and trust one another due to our years of intermittently organizing together.
Since we are all currently involved with institutions of higher education, it made sense for us to do everything that we can where we are. The focus on education, however, I think we all understand in the broadest possible sense of the term (like the ancient Greek notion of paideia): it is the collective process of forging a collectivity, by mutually fashioning its thoughts, feelings, representations, values and worldviews. Moreover, since we are the bearers of myriad university credentials, I was very drawn to the idea that we could mobilize them in the name of radical social transformation. Instead of the anti-capitalist Left being affiliated by the propaganda machine with destitute, dirty and drug-induced dropouts, RED—whose most powerful symbol to date is a radical “dressed to teach” à la JPS confronting Murray—can send a very strong message about why we should all be on the hard Left. For if we spend years seriously studying the history of the modern world while cultivating intellectual autonomy from the ideological incarceration within capitalist thought factories, we will reach the same conclusion: another world is necessary!
This focus on education goes hand-in-hand with community building and the development of an autonomous pedagogical platform. In fact, in many ways, I understand RED as a collective process of self-education. In sharing our views with one another and a broader community, providing feedback on one another’s projects, creatively brainstorming together, and so forth, we are collectively teaching one another through the direct action of productive theoretical and practical exchange. Rather than trying to make RED into an advertising campaign that simply garners as many votes as possible like a political party, I take it that we have founded an organization in the best sense of the term: an autonomous collective invested in self-education in order to foster a process of group social transformation. An organization, we might say, “takes the long way around” in the sense that it is invested in a deep and long process of autonomous pedagogical metamorphosis rather than in the “quick return” of a political party that multiplies its followers as hastily as possible through thoughtless banner-waving and public relations campaigns.
There are also important conjunctural elements that contributed to the founding of RED. One of these is the paltry response of liberals—who exercise an unmerited monopoly over the term “the Left” in the United States—to the election of a white supremacist trust fund baby to the White House. One of the ways in which the system of pseudo-democracy works is by corralling the administered masses into camps and determining their struggles for them. In the U.S., this tussle is defined as one between liberals and conservatives, and there is very little inquiry into why these are purportedly the only two options. This is particularly important because both of these camps are defenders of imperial capitalism, and the major difference is in their public relations campaigns. If liberals want to keep the gloves on and conservatives take them off, they both agree that the world should continue to be unremittingly pummeled by top-down global class warfare.
In blindly accepting a marketing campaign intent on defining “resistance” as “opposition to Trump,” liberals swallow—hook, line and sinker—the bait tendered to them by pseudo-democratic administered reality. They thereby contribute to the perpetuation of the very system that produced this trust fund baby and so many others that are intent on advancing the same basic project (the imperial record of the Clintonites, which includes Obama, has been well documented for anyone interested in examining it).
Meanwhile, any position to the left of liberalism is violently subjected to the reductio ad Stalinum, as if opposing an economic and political system that is fast destroying the conditions of possibility of life on planet Earth was a form of bloodthirsty terrorism. This “blackmail of the Gulag” also eradicates—or, at least, attempts to—the memory of any radical leftism irreducible to Stalinism, like the anarchist international, egalitarian Soviet social projects, the varieties of anti-colonial struggle, autonomous indigenous movements, radical ecological politics, and so forth. Unfortunately, however, the inter-generational assault on the academy, marked by the red and black purges of the McCarthy era (that have never really ended), has assured that the university serves its function of ideological social reproduction by being dominated by conservatives and liberals with little or no awareness of these histories.
In this setting, it has been particularly important for RED to launch a frontal assault on the ideological pillars of liberalism, insofar as they usually function in perfect harmony with the conservative perpetuation or intensification of global structures of oppression. Along with the sword of direct action, then, we have taken up the pen of intellectual guerilla warfare to systematically dismantle the pervasive but misguided practico-theoretical framework surrounding issues like free speech, direct action, violence and antifascism.
We are fully aware of the fact that pro-capitalist—and usually jingoist—liberalism has much broader support in the university and the mass media, which inevitably restricts our audience. Politics, however, is not a popularity contest or an advertising campaign, despite what we are taught to believe. It is most fundamentally about how a collectivity forges its own reality. And we, at RED, are invested in qualitative transformation, not simply in a numbers game that is another one of the baiting mechanisms of administered pseudo-democracy. Rather than reducing politics to pandering to the ideological masses, in order to guarantee that they get what the system tells them that they want, it should be about qualitative collective education and social transformation.
I think that I can safely speak for all of us at RED when I say that we are not simply opposed to the latest trust fund baby in the white house. What we reject is the system that produced him, and so many others, and will continue to produce them if it is not dismantled. As the etymology of the adjective “radical” suggests, the Radical Education Department seeks to go to the root of the current crises and take power into our own hands, rather than remaining within the comforting illusion that we just need to elect different members of the ruling class to administer reality to us.
4 Replies to “04. E.D. Why RED, Why Now?”
This sounds promising—you are fortunate to have found a group of people who are “on the same wavelength,” as you put it. And certainly one of the greatest impediments to any real action is the tendency to false “sophistication,” the endless demand that we need to qualify and complicate everything indefinitely, until we lose all capacity for action. It always seems to me that such demands to become more “sophisticated” (to use your term) and all the other petty debate is just a disingenuous attempt to limit action to what will turn a profit, to what will gain those participating some kind of cultural, or preferably actual, capital. The “transverse” organization could avoid this activism-killing strategy, but it kind of does require a group of people who are on that same wavelength, and who would support multiple small-scale actions which promise no financial reward. Good luck..I hope it works out.
I wonder if you are prepared for the possible consequences of using your positions and credentials in radical ways? If you do anything really radical, it could very well be career-ending. Maybe not if those involved have the right kind of credentials (say, from the right kind of Ivy-League universities, or the European equivalents), in which case you might get more latitude…but still, there are limits.
Surely the goal of education is always subject-formation. And you could use your position in higher education to form a kind of subject who might think critically, have actual agency, and who might participate in “dismantling” the “practico-theoretical framework” that reproduces the status quo. I hope you do. But be prepared for the cost. You won’t get tenured or promoted, may have trouble getting another job, and may sink to the level of itinerant lecturer (if you’re lucky). Now, I don’t have the cushion of any degrees from prestigious universities (all my degrees are from state schools), so perhaps the repercussions are more extreme for those at my level?
But let me offer you an example: I was teaching a graduate class in poetry to students planning to work as high school teachers, and I asked them to write a paper defending poetry. Basically, I wanted them to consider why it might be a good thing to force teenagers to read poems, essentially against their will. What might they gain from being made to read a poem? I expected that such a defense would be simple (that students with degrees in English Literature could come up with some reasons to read a poem), and that it might motivate them to think more carefully about HOW they would teach a poem to an adolescent.
So, the students and the faculty from the education department were outraged by the question, complained, and I lost that job. This didn’t stop me. I did the same think with a class on Shakespeare: asked them to make a case for reading Shakespeare—what reason is there for reading a Shakespeare play rather than reading a “modern-English” summary or watching a film loosely “based on” the play? I don’t do that anymore either, for the same reason. Certainly, I expected this. And when I got my doctorate I was prepared to never have a tenured position, to never make a real living wage out of teaching. I knew that failing to produce good subjects of capitalism would limit my career and employment opportunities.
My point is, are you willing to consider that if what you do in your position is in fact at all radical, you will not keep that position long? And I’m not saying you’ll get fired if you try to recruit anti-american militant guerrilla fighters, or even make speeches denouncing American imperialism and capitalist oppression. I’m saying if you try to teach students to consider such simple questions as “why read a poem?” you may risk your job. Just this, the attempt to produce subjects who think critically, is too radical.
Or, and I would seriously like to know this, is this a problem limited to someone like me, with degrees from public universities whose jobs have therefore been limited to lower-level colleges and universities (lower-tier state schools and fairly non-competitive over-priced private schools)? Do you not face this same struggle if you work at the kinds of schools that someone like me could never get even an adjunct position? Can you be more “radical” there? I hope so, or the world may be doomed.
Myself, I come from and spend much of my time among the “destitute, dirty, and drug-induced dropouts” of America. So perhaps these are limitations that others don’t face. In the class I come from, which is the one I still live among, I never encounter someone “on the same wavelength” as me.
Good Luck! I sincerely hope RED is a success!
Tom, you ask: “are you willing to consider that if what you do in your position is in fact at all radical, you will not keep that position long?” I believe that that is THE big looming question going forward. The most recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education has as its lead article “Why We Need a More Activist Academy” by Jessica F. Green. The tag line is “Impartiality bolsters a dangerous status quo.” There is a growing sense in the World of the corporate university that the image of Marxist-infected humanities departments is ridiculously quaint. The conservative media might still invoke the canard of the liberal bias of the university, but as far as I can tell, the truth is that the university liberals have become full-fledged neoliberals—they have become the willing agents of the assessment-retention-quantification culture that originated in the corporate sphere and has completely overrun the university. So, even the relatively mild politicization that Jessica Green is calling for in her article will eventually have to reckon with the reactionary force that is the typical college administration. How much more so the overtly anti-capitalist radical action that E.D. is advocating? I share your question, wondering just what consequences such action, even if in speech only, will have for the instigators. Just to be clear to anyone reading this thread, the idea circulating with increasing force is that the old liberal solutions—form committees, advance proposals for reform, vote, etc—are no longer tenable.
Yes, the conservatism of the new corporate university does make it doubtful that we might be able to produce subjects with real agency in any institution of higher education. As someone who has spent thirty four years in various roles in higher education, from student to faculty member, as a research assistant and a post-doctoral fellow, in various disciplines and at institutions ranging from community colleges to an Ivy League university, I will say that of the several hundred faculty members I have known I have met only three marxists. So, sure, the idea that English departments are hotbeds of communist subversion is idiotic—every English department I have been in any way connected to has been overwhelmingly conservative and pro-capitalist.
What I’m suggesting, though, is that at some point it was at least possible to use these institutions and the very goals of the various disciplines to push students to think seriously and critically. If the goal of history is objective truth, as it proclaims, then it becomes possible to use a history classroom to undermine the ideological myths of popular history—to offer the most obvious example. Of course, once this is done, then history loses its ideological function, and is gradually phased out (for instance, at some schools I’ve taught at, there is no longer a requirement that all students take history classes to get a degree; at others, the requirement has been cut to a single course in history at the sophomore level ).
In the current ideological situation, if we even try to do what the academic disciplines claim they intend to do, we risk not only losing our jobs but the elimination of the very discipline itself. This need not be anything terribly radical—no more radical than asking students to think critically, or to move beyond trite cliches and banalities to a correct understanding of…well, of anything. Doing this can lose you a job fast. Doing this consistently can get a discipline eliminated (usually now with the claim, not that it is marxist, but that it is “postmodern”).
This may be too much for a comment section, but I’ll offer an illustration from the papers submitted here.
As an erstwhile English professor, I share the concerns about students’ inability to read addressed by Mary Keaton in her essay on “Reclaiming the Deep Reading Brain”; however, I’m horrified by what she envisions as a “solution” to the problem.
The idea that serious and engaged reading enables students to produce responses like the example she offers from one of her students is dismaying. When a student reads The Epic of Gilgamesh and arrives at the profound lesson that
“you have one life on Earth, so take advantage of what life has to offer. Do what makes you happy and do something meaningful while you are here. Appreciate everything that comes in and out of your life”
I would question whether it is worth reading it at all. Surely what we mean by “deep” reading must require something more as an end product than recounting banal platitudes?
Now, I know from experience it usually doesn’t—that what Keaton describes doing with her students is exactly what is done in most college English classes: have students memorize passages if they are incapable of reading for comprehension; have them do a “modern” retelling of the text, often as a skit or creative project, in order elide the problem of historical specificity; then, ask them to offer some tired cliches in the form of a paper telling the professor how deep and profound they found the text. This is what most Shakespeare classes, for instance, do in most colleges.
But can we take seriously the claim that this student’s trite response is proof that she has been “awakened and transformed,” and this is the “whole purpose of education”? I wish this were not true—but in my experience, this ability to reduce anything to a platitude is exactly what is meant by “critical thinking” at the kind of universities I usually work at.
My concern is that if this is all we have to offer students, then it is no wonder they take no interest in reading—they don’t need to read Gilgamesh to arrive at these old saws, they can get them off the internet on their phones! And if they do read Gilgamesh, they’re likely to find it odd and unfamiliar and dull—unless the teacher can provide sufficient context to explain to them its function as a resolution of the ideological contradictions in Mesopotamia during the time of transition from pastoral nomadic life to the early city-state. We face the same problem when students “learn” that Macbeth teaches us that ambition is bad, or that fate defeats our attempts at free will—instead of understanding that it is a play about the sources and nature of the aristocracy’s power. Why bother to do the work of reading the play to arrive at a cliche you can find on Google, if you know that only the cliche will get you an “A” and a thorough and careful analysis of the play will get you a bad grade?
So, I would still ask, in all seriousness: is this true only of the kind of institutions that someone with my meager credential can work at? Is it possible, at some kind of university, to do, say, a serious critical and historical study of something like Gilgamesh? Or would this get you fired as quickly at a prestigious private university as it would at the less competitive more vocationally-focused colleges where I have almost always worked?
Because even something as simple as teaching students what Macbeth or Gilgamesh is really about seems to me radically enabling today—but is no longer permissible.
More dramatically radical subject formation would be great. But even this simple level of critical thought might make it possible to revive the old “liberal solutions” of forming committees and proposing reforms.
Tom, you ask whether serious critical study would “get you fired as quickly at a prestigious private university as it would at the less competitive more vocationally-focused colleges?”
I’ll offer an answer to your question from my own experience. I started graduate study in one of the “elite” German universities, in Göttingen. I then went to Harvard to finish my Ph.D. My first job was at Brown. From there, I went to Bowdoin, and finally to the University of Georgia, where I was tenured. Georgia may not be “elite,” but it is a Research 1 institution, populated by many Ivy League faculty. So, my short answer to your question is, yes, you can do serious critical work in the classroom, BUT, your colleagues will catch wind of it and brand you as something on a continuum from harmless eccentric to dangerous rabble-rouser. Wherever on that continuum you are, you will be considered suspicious, and not one of the properly interpellated.
Now, if you bring your pedagogical iconoclasm out of your isolated little classroom and into the department meeting or the faculty senate, trouble begins. I have seen instances of such “trouble-making” colleagues being pushed out where possible and marginalized where not. And I have experienced instances myself. (That’s another story.) Who can doubt today that the University has become a conservative institution? In fact, many academics are vocally arguing for what sounds to me like reactionary pedagogy. A very good recent display of this can be found in the comment section of the Chronicle of Higher Education article that I mentioned above, Jessica Green’s, “Why We Need a More Activist Academy.” https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-We-Need-a-More-Activist/243924
Not only are academics no longer pretending to be liberals, much less leftists, they are outright arguing for right-leaning views.