Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.
Marxism in Action: Ideology, Agency, and Education
Since the fall of socialism, Marxists have locked themselves inside the ivory tower of theory and have neglected to acknowledge the daily lives of their constituents. They still believe in the dangerously oppressive power of the ruling class (bourgeoisie) over the working class (proletariat) through its often-subliminal, controlling beliefs (ideology). They still believe that capitalism is doing its best to turn the working class individual into a commodity. And they still believe that one revolutionary class needs to work together to overthrow the capitalistic system.
These tenets are in danger of remaining forever theoretical unless Marxism is willing to change, not its tenets, but its implementation strategy. Theorists everywhere are tittering with laughter over Marxism's collective ineffectiveness thus far. They laugh at the improbability that a revolutionary class will ever develop in the face of capitalistic prosperity and freedom. Peter McLaren says the Marxist goal is still "[t]o destroy capitalist social relations, to annihilate capital itself," and to create "a massive movement of social force and energy" (15). Michael Apple insists that once we begin "[b]uilding communities based on varied but shared sentiments, and on programs that promise to take honestly the problems people face in their daily lives, [we can] start again on the path that Raymond Williams has so eloquently called 'the journey of hope' toward the long revolution" (114). However, theorists everywhere are tittering with laughter over Marxism's collective ineffectiveness thus far. They laugh at the improbability that a revolutionary class will ever develop in the face of capitalistic prosperity and freedom, however illusionary it may actually be.
It is important now to see if Marxists can indeed utilize their decades of ivory tower sabbatical to effect genuine social change. Recognizing the valuable theoretical explorations of those who have gone before, Marxists sense the need to embrace a bi-directional understanding of their ideology and return agency to the working class through shrewd and strategic changes in the educational arena. Unfortunately, as I will show, their efforts do not appear to have gone far enough, stopping ineffectively short of action and still within the realm of theory.
The Other Side of Ideology
A misconception surrounding the concept of ideology has blinded much of the Marxist world to the reality of the common person's everyday life. A short inquiry into this confusion would show why ideology has become what James Aune refers to as "the most unstable term in Marxism" (67). Ideology has traditionally been defined by its systematic objectivity, by its top-down character disseminated from the ruling class to the working class in an attempt to convince them that their situation is normal and natural. According to Fred Pfeil, Terry Eagleton believes that authors are incapable of creating a work that is outside what Eagleton calls the "general ideology" (758). This is because Eagleton refuses to allow individuals to claim their own ideology by insisting that their thought-production is fixed in relation to the ideology of their society. For dogmatically simplistic reasons, Marxist orthodoxy refuses to allow for any ideological subjectivity, a view which expels and ostracizes all levels of political difference. Because of Marxism's insistence in a top-down ideological framework, it has remained impotent in its ability to explain how individuals are able to "inhabit contradictory ideological positions" or how ideology is able to gain footholds in areas other than economics (McLaren 156).
The effect of Marxism's rigid stance has been its consistently decreasing usefulness toward social change. Marxists look forward to the day in which a working class will rise in united revolution against the ruling hegemony. Raymond Williams's definition of hegemony from Marxism and Literature is a theoretical standard:
The concept of hegemony often resembles the definitions [of ideology], but it is distinct in its refusal to equate consciousness with the articulate formal system...which a dominant class develops and dominates...It does not reduce consciousness to them. Instead it sees the relations of domination and subordination...as a saturation of the whole process of living...to such a depth...to appear to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense (110).
Here the differences between ideology and hegemony can be seen. Ideology is a visible system; hegemony, a hidden consciousness. For the social hegemony to change in the working class' favor, hegemony-feeding ideology must be invaded and usurped. If ideology can be understood as the visible system of controlling beliefs, hegemony can be seen as the hidden, consenting consciousness earned through cultural ideology. If the top-down control of the ruling class continues to be seen as an impermeable one-way force, then the bourgeoisie will continue to eat its proletariat-baked cake.
Stanley Aronowitz insists that Marxist ideology must recognize the individual within a "developing, historically-mediated context," that it must consider the changing historical influences and cultural beliefs in relation to the Marxist absolutes (162). This goes against much Marxist thinking that insists that the working class revolution must be as an entire class, like an enormous cleansing wave. Instead, Marxists like Peter McLaren claim that Orthodox Marxists undercut their own arguments by leaving themselves open to skepticism resulting from their insistence on social ideological absolutes and retreating to the realm of theory and disregarding the realm of action (158). Instead, Marxists like Peter McLaren suggest that the revolution could be actively, but shrewdly, obtained through the strategic efforts of individuals.
This wrestling over the reality of ideology and hegemony, or struggling with "the concept of shifting discourses" as McLaren calls it, can be traced back to Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks (159). Jackson Lears's "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony" details Gramsci's assertion that the popular consciousness under capitalism is more complex than Marx first detailed and that the individual is capable of conscious thoughts that arise contrary to the hegemonic influence to which he is supposedly surrendered (569). If individuals are capable of consciousness creation, then hegemony should be viewed as a "continuous creation which, given its massive scale, is bound to be uneven in the degree of legitimacy it commands and to leave some room for antagonistic cultural expressions to develop" (571). If the hegemonic influence is continually changing, then certain periods of societal history will allow people to assert their own ideological power, free from hegemonic dominion and capable of ideological power. Fred Pfiel, in his "Towards a Portable Marxist Criticism," argues that Raymond Williams allowed ideology to remodel Marxism's ideological rigidity so far toward an active Marxism that he lost the entirety of the Marxist essence (762). Williams's willingness to change took him too far.
This battle for ideological significance needs to take into account the situation of the individual that, though he knows what lies in his best interest, acts in opposition to his knowledge because he needs to survive. That kind of objectivity denies the real context of people's lives. Jackson Lears's clarification of Gramsci's often-misunderstood idea of hegemony might secure some footholds by which future Marxist theory and, more appropriately, action might climb:
One might imagine hegemonic cultures placed anywhere on a continuum from 'closed' to 'open.' In the closed version, subordinate groups lack the language necessary even to conceive concerted resistance; in the open version, the capability for resistance flourishes and may lead to the creation of counterhegemonic alternatives (574).
Lears claims that for much of its history, America has lived toward the "open" end of the hegemonic spectrum. While actively present in society, its hegemony has been permeable and quite vulnerable, although arguably only to the extent the new ideas suite the ever-demanding, economically-driven capitalist system. An acceptance of Lears's idea would allow Marxists to recognize the always-changing social factor and remember that forces - capitalist, Marxist, bourgeois, and proletariat alike - are battling for and can obtain hegemonic influence and control over the modes of production.
Ideology must then be regarded as a double-sided, or even multi-sided, process. The economy should not be assigned more influence than race, gender, and class, but should only be considered as a part of the totality. The relationship between the different levels of society should be seen as "mutually determining" rather than top-down even though the struggle remains class-based (McLaren 178). Ideology should be seen as a "process of production," "performatively constituted" by individuals as they live and react to their environments (171). Orthodox Marxism needs to offer the working class the hope that they can implement what McLaren calls a "radical pedagogy [developing towards] a programmatic discourse of hope and social transformation" (166).
An agreement by Marxism to set aside its utopian promise for a moment to try to understand people in the midst of their day-to-day existence might enable it to offer the individual person a liberating, intellectual and social empowerment. If it continues to preach that ideology only affects the individual negatively, it will continue to deny the positive and personal side of ideology. The working class individual has waited long enough for this supposed revolutionary working class to congeal on its own. It is about time that Marxism, without losing its essence, recognize that the agency of the individual can be an effective tool, if not the ideal weapon, to war against the dominant ideology and nebulous hegemony.
The Disappearance of Agency
Marxism's insistence on the working class' inability to fire its own ideological bullets back at the ruling class has disarmed them of any individual agency they once had. It has told them that one person cannot affect substantial change. For hegemony to remain the way it is, the so-called subordinate groups must consent to live within its power. The working class groups have given their consent because 1) they do not know they are being controlled; 2) they do not care that they are being controlled; 3) they feel they are alone in their situation; 4) they do not know what they can do to resist. Only a small portion of the active discourse has given the working class any option other than being aware of or secluding themselves from the dominant ideology, and the proletariat has certainly not been supplied any viable plan for counterattack.
The result has been a working-class people that believe the billboard advertisements they see on the way to work and the messages they read in the newspapers and magazines. They lack the skills necessary to see their everyday lives as they stand victim to the ideological bombardment. The untrained masses may be deceived by what is in their good interest while failing to recognize that the temptation does not serve their best interest, unable to cipher the different sides of their contradictory consciousness and unaware of the power and domination exerted over them. Marxism seems to have mispredicted how the worker individual would behave under advanced capitalism. Workers have accepted their workplace conditions "in exchange for autonomy in the private spheres" (Lears 581). The common individual does not locate himself in a particular class and is therefore not interested in defending his class identity, at least not in the same way as one would defend his cultural or gender identity (McGee 209).
What Marxists Williams, Althusser, and Gramsci have recognized is the subliminal, invisible power that ideology has over people's minds. They understand that the masses give up their power by remaining oblivious to the cultural hegemony at work on and around them. In Marxism and Literature Williams begins to address the idea that capitalist education is an evolving business, set on harvesting the student's mind for its human capital, which can be effectively tapped into through a well-designed educational system, but he fails to offer any solutions. Where is the individual agency?
Capitalism's deceptive trick has been its ability to morph one's individual agency into economic labor power. Labor power, what used to be limited to the individual's worth based on the value of his accomplished work, now encompasses his mental capabilities, attitudes, personal values, personal outlooks, and personality traits. Training these qualities allows the economic system to best utilize the qualities of the individual. Education works to increase your "employability" by making you a "work-ready graduate" who can "meet industry needs." Such educational jargon is created to mask the capitalistic nature of the educational system (McLaren 18).
The students' mind is the next generation of labor power, existing as both a pre-commodity, not yet exploited and commandeered by the economy, and a commodity, already valued and traded within education. Glenn McLaren claims that the "[s]chools are in the business of producing a living commodity" (22). By "contracting" out the educational system to dominate the working class with a commodificationist force instead of a revolutionary one, capitalist society is able to infiltrate all areas of culture and squelch any potentially intelligent uprisings (Liu 1). It has attempted to control the educational system through curricula, teacher training, education unions, training organizations, and performance-related incentives, at the same time discussing voucher plans and tax credits has endeavored to make schools more like the free-market economy. Legislatures raised standards and demanded competency through curricula, adding a "growing pressure to make the needs of business and industry into the primary goals of the educational system" (Apple 99).
The dense web of education-related rituals has become part of what McLaren calls the "social conditioned, historically acquired, and biologically constituted rhythms and metaphors of human agency" (172). Teachers ritually exchange knowledge with students who instinctively learn and react to the information, deciding for themselves which knowledge is worthy of their investment. The mind of the student is the battleground of the educational rituals. Students are taught what Everhart calls "reified knowledge," or knowledge which is taught under the pretense that it is unproblematic and needs to be believed (McLaren 173). Any critical thinking and resistance to this type of knowledge may result in the student's loss of status in the educational community, a sort of educational demerits. If knowledge learned in the streets does not mesh with knowledge taught in schools, a choice has to be made while students attempt to rationalize the differences between their school and street educations.
Education threatens agency. Its instructional rituals are used to rank students according to their value as an educated commodity, holding their promotional power over the individual and demanding his assimilation. Students are not allowed to exist in the margin. The educational system is in the process of dissolving the border regions of society while at the same time illuminating the streets and promising beneficial renovation. This is how capitalism captures the entire social universe. McLaren suggests that for agency to exist in educational systems (K-12 and college) and a capitalist society, the individual needs to "partake in a social project of human emancipation through imploding the social universe of capital" (16). Unlike the Post-Marxists, who desire to disassociate themselves from all things that sound Marxist and retain only "it's best fragments," faithful Marxists need to put the past decades of theory into empirical practice. Social justice then becomes the battle for social justice. Morality becomes the battle for morality. The focus is action, not just theorizing about action. "The struggle to attain morality, the struggle to make values possible, continually crashes against the fabric of society. It is this that makes struggle for gender equality, 'race' equality and so on so explosive" (16). An active Marxism would be at the forefront of Post-Colonial, Queer, Feminist, and New Historicist Theories. Instead, it has relinquished its power to the various secondary theories. It has allowed its liberating ideology to be parsed up by different groups who are willing to take an active role in their social freedom. What Marxism's successors all lack is the capability for economic emancipation.
Individuals, students especially, need to explore their own ideology while investing in a social project, which may include on-campus endeavors. This would constantly disrupt the system's attempts to turn their intrinsic revolutionary power into capitalistic labor power through education and training. Marx wrote that "man must prove the truth, ie., the reality and power, the thisworldliness of his thinking in practice...Its consummation [is] the point where it breaks into practice" (29). Students need to develop a critical consciousness by which they decode everyday life. The problem is that no one has convinced them of their necessary action. If individuals would introspectively search within themselves for value and meaning, they would comprehend and be able to react against the contradictions between their personal existence and the purported hegemonic common existence.
Returning Agency to Education
The key battlefield in the fight to turn Marxist theory into Marxist revolution seems to be the educational system. Who better to begin the fight than the "soldiers" already trained and positioned. Peter McLaren says that "teachers and trainers are in a structural position to subvert and unsettle processes of labor power production within their orbits." Teachers have the opportunity to "enshrine educational principles and questions that bring into question the constitution of society" and minimize the ones that subvert power back to capitalism (18).
This war needs to be waged against the rituals of capital. The reading and interpretation of literature is one of those rituals. If the general ideology of society cannot help but be replicated within the fabric of a given text, it seems McLaren needs teachers to lead students in the pursuit of the roots of capitalist hegemonic threads within a text. Fred Pfiel's belief is that upper-middle class students resist joining the Marxist cause. Not having personally felt the pains caused by capitalist hegemony, they find it difficult to believe in concepts of class consciousness and the commodification of the individual (Pfiel 754). How can a teacher engage students in such a way as to promote buy-in toward the cause? Fred Pfiel offers some ideas:
It ought to be possible to show people...how to read and study literature in a new way: no longer as a bright moment in the history of genres, a signal instance of the author's creative genius, or a lovely useless thing-in-itself, but as the production of a unique combination of social forces, all of which are, in the last analysis, deeply and significantly related to the mode of production of the time (754).
If literature, the cornerstone of the English department, is packed with the ideals of the culture, it should be studied for more than just its creative skill.
Do the Marxist literary critics teaching literature work to encourage social revolution? So far, the answer appears to be "No," at least as far as Marxists would desire. The ideology should be uncovered and examined, and Marxists would benefit from a series of questions with which they might "to demystify the work of literature, both in itself as a human product of a specific mode of production, distribution, and consumption, and as a way toward a true understanding of our social experience through the social experience it expresses and projects" (755). Pfiel claims that Marxism needs to teach students three things which both Eagleton and Williams believe: first, the direct effect of social reality on literature; second, the production of literature; and third, the "materiality of signification" in Literature (765). If teachers trained students to critique literature through these filters and apply them in the educational setting, students would understand the ideology woven into today's and yesterday's literature, would arrive at a new belief regarding the traditional Marxist values, and would exert themselves more emotionally and actively against the ideology forced on them by society.
Individuals in the educational community need to be shown that a critique of literature is a series of choices, which either opens a new door toward social change or remains within the capitalist corridors. Recognizing the decision and discussing it with others allows us to "acquire ourselves by engaging in our dialogue with others, and especially with texts that challenge our own beliefs" (Hilfer 43). Instead of already knowing "the gender or race of a given writer and what the writer 'really' means and how to evaluate that meaning," this Marxist approach would enable a new level "curiosity of scholarship" (Hilfer 47).
This curiosity involves asking good questions, foundational ones like those Michael Apple has formulated. "Whose knowledge is taught in schools? Why is it taught in this particular way to this particular group? How do we enable the histories and cultures of the majority of working people, of women, of people of color to be taught in responsible and responsive ways in schools?" (Apple 112). Similar questions could be formulated from Richard Ohmann's thinking from "The Shaping of a Canon." What books get published? Why do certain books get published while others walk the long plank to the rejection pile? What filters (ie. agents, publishers, advertisers, book stores, critics, journals, etc.) are in place within the publishing system to keep the ideas contained within certain books from reaching the public?
Much of Foucault's work concerns itself with where these "regimes of truth" lie, who gets to create them, and how they affect the active societal discourse. Many of these regimes of truth are hidden within the underlying motivation for the various educational rituals put into place to facilitate the taste, attitudes, and ideology of the ruling class. They can be found beneath the selections of classroom texts and the methods of literary analysis valued during discussion of such texts. They are displayed through the fear many students have over voicing their individual views, especially ones that fly in the face of the hegemonic mainstream.
A two-way view of ideology should allow students to comprehend the socially influenced and constructed meaning in texts as well as the educational environment. Students would be permitted to create meaning, potentially self-produced and unique of society, within their own texts. Teachers would be allowed to "construct pedagogical practices that are able to resonate with their students' experiences...and to tap the hidden utopian desire in those experiences in order to develop classroom discourses and practices that provide students with a vision of social change" (McLaren 179).
Today, the ideological battlefield on which future hegemony will be formed is education. The capitalist structure is busy converting the mental faculties of students into future labor power and robbing them of any personal agency they may have had. Because of this, Marxists need to adopt a politics of resistance and develop a radical pedagogy that dispenses with the capitalistic value production, an alienated labor force, and a handcuffed personal agency. A critical pedagogy is needed. It should be irrevocably and implacably tied "to our faith in the ability of the working class to shape society in the interest of freedom and justice" (McLaren 30).
Theory's Unaddressed Material Problem
However, this is where the new Marxist thinkers stop short. All it takes is someone to ask the question "How..." for these progressive Marxist ideas to grind to a halt. It is easy to see how asking the right Marxist questions within a discussion of literature could shed light on the ideology behind the texts. What remains vague is "How will students be able to create their ideology?" "What will they do with this self-produced ideology?" "Besides adding discontent, how will their ideology change their lives?" Marxists like McLaren and Apple have some grand ideas that in theory would work, but this has been the bane of Marxism all along has it not? Their desire is that ideology and hegemony be viewed as this two-way street in which the proletariat views themselves as capable of affecting the superstructure above them by personally deciding their own ideology. This seems, in itself, seems to be reverting back against the very Marxist tenets of Marxist thought they desire so badly to keep in place. They still long for a working class revolution, but upon realizing that a cogent effort is not probable, they have altered Marx's theories to make the revolution of a personal nature and return agency to the individual.
But what then, for Marxism, is the purpose of personal agency if it is not within the strategic revolutionary collective? This would create an unknown myriad of revolutionaries that would supposedly then be working behind the scenes on their own, underground so to speak, without any unified strategies besides perhaps those set out by the theorists and educators. Marx spoke to this issue:
The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking (Leitch 768).
It appears that Marx ideology as intrinsically bound to the superstructure that sits above it. Ideology is not even individual to the various systems affected by the dominant cultural hegemony. To Marx, nothing is free from, what his followers called, hegemony, nor can anything break itself free. Rather, they tend toward a loss of "semblance of independence." The problem with their plan for returning personal agency to the working Marxist individual is that the individuals are still tied to their working-class jobs in which they "become all the poorer the more wealth [they] produce" (765). Enlightening the individual and giving him theoretic agency without significantly improving his personal environment does nothing but make him unsatisfied, and while unsatisfaction can be a powerful motivator, it remains unclear how that unsatisfaction will strategically turn him to anything but what Marx labels "his animal functions - eating, drinking, [and] procreating" (767).
Even their suggested synchronized, subversive revolution within the realm of education does not address the root of the problem. Developing the working-class within the commidified educational system does not solve their material needs and the reproduction of their material deficit. They cannot all don the life of the theorist and benefit from its distance from the production process. They will inevitably remain within the system, working their jobs and putting their soul into the commodity they produce. Even if they were to escape the realm of material production, they would land firmly on the conveyor belt in the factory for mental production as the "intellectual creations of individual[s] ... become common property" (772). Suggestions like McLaren's, that teachers would be allowed to "construct pedagogical practices that are able to resonate with their students' experiences...and to tap the hidden utopian desire in those experiences in order to develop classroom discourses and practices that provide students with a vision of social change," do not suggest how teachers may be able to initiate these changes within in a system that invariably tells them what they are supposed to teach (179). Statewide teaching standards at all levels of education (K-12 and college) require certain content as well as certain approaches to the same content. The system does not appear to lend itself to a subversive Marxist revolution. McLaren and others do not come close to suggesting how this might be implemented at the lower levels. Does the problem of materiality even apply to second grade students and would they understand it if it did? While their ideas toward enacting social change for the working-class individual are the most specific to ever surface, they sadly fall short at the point of implementation, when and where the rubber of their theories rarely meet the road. All this understood, ideology and agency, even when utilized within the educational environment do not seem to provide the nuts and bolts for which Marxism is looking.
None of the critics seem to be able to answer these questions. Furthermore, what Marxists fail to realize is that hijacking the educational rituals under the guise of liberating students from the capitalist commodification process turns Marxism into an evil similar to the one it's attempting to unseat. Students become a revolutionary commodity, one more body in the ocean of revolutionaries required in order for Marxism to dethrone capitalism. Marxism will always have this problem. McLaren's fear is that "the survival of our planet depends on the success of the anti-capitalist movement and the abolition of capital" (42). Marxist adherents maintain that any effective revolution will require not only usurping the means material production but also the means of mental production. Their problem is that they need to overthrow the oppressive capitalist forces without instituting their own potentially-oppressive Marxist alternative. They need to understand ideology and return agency to the working class while infiltrating the realm of education. They say this revolution can only be accomplished through a rebirthed class consciousness formed within a new class of "organic individuals," "bourgeois experts," and "proletarianized intellectuals" (30). While these ideas do bring Marxism closer to action, their lack of answers for the important questions regarding implementation leave them sadly still within the realm of theory.
Apple, Michael. Views beyond the Border Country: Raymond Williams and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Aune, James A. Rhetoric and Community: Studies in Unity and Fragmentation. Columbia: U of South Carolina, 1998.
Hilfer, Tony. The New Hegemony in Literary Studies: Contradictions in Theory. Illinois: Northwestern UP, 2003.
Lears, T. J. Jackson. "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities." American Historical Review 90 (1985): 567-93.
Leitch, Vincent, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism . New York: Norton, 2001.
Liu, Kang. "Hegemony and Cultural Revolution." New Literary History 28 (1997): 69-86.
McGee, Daniel T. "Post-Marxism: The Opiate of the Intellectuals." Modern Language Quarterly 58 (1997): 201-225.
McLaren, Peter. "On Ideology and Education: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Empowerment." Social Text (1988): 153-185.
McLaren, Peter, and Glenn Rikowski. "Pedagogy for Revolution against Education for Capital: An E-Dialogue on Education in Capitalism Today." Cultural Logic 4 (2000): 1-42.
Pfeil, Fred. "Towards a Portable Marxist Criticism: A Critique and Suggestion." College English 41 (1980): 753-768.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature . Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.
Click to Leave Comments
[back to top]