Teaching in the Post-Truth Interregnum

When Trump was elected President in 2016, I was teaching six courses at three different colleges: one community college and two universities. In all but one class, the students, the far majority of them minoritized students, first wrote about how they felt about the election and then discussed it. (The outlier class was the last class I taught that week; the students overwhelming decided they did not want to discuss it because they had spent the first portion of the week discussing it in other classes). All of these institutions were a part of urban communities of color, urban communities that have suffered the elimination of resources first through the racist New Deal legislation that socially engineered white flight into the suburbs and created what we think of today as the “ghetto,” and then through the disinvestment of the neoliberal policies first enacted by Reagan and then by every Democrat and Republican administration thereafter to present day. The temporary taking of the Capitol by Trump supporters whose intent was to disrupt the finishing procedures in finalizing a valid election in the vain attempt to reinstate their authoritarian of choice was, at least in a semiotic sense, the culmination of all of my students’ fears back in 2016. As an instructor, what do I do with these semiotics in my future classrooms, semiotics which will, no doubt, be a part of my students for the foreseeable future? What is my role within a larger society of helping to create free-thinking citizens in an interregnum of “post-truth” where a number of my students at any given time are immersed in a system of information divorced from reality?

Before I share my struggles with this in the last few days, I first have to talk about what kind of teaching I do. I teach college writing and critical thinking and I do this using liberation pedagogy. Liberation pedagogy argues that although the classroom is designed as part of what Luis Althusser calls the Ideological State Apparatus in order to “teach” future workers their place in capitalism (aka being okay with their exploitation), the classroom can actually be used for the opposite purpose, to create what Antonio Gramsci calls “organic intellectuals,” or members of the working class who understand the benefits of liberation and help convince other workers of the same, one day then winning what Gramsci calls “the war of position,” which would then help workers move to a state of liberation. As bell hooks argues: “The classroom remains the most radical space in the academy.” Now what exactly does liberation mean? This can be slippery to pin down exactly. For the purposes of the following exploration, I am going to define liberation within the traditional parameters of socialism: workers take control of the means of production and create a democratically elected state which is interested in the well-being of all workers; in which producing for profit has been replaced by producing for use and, because exploitation has been eliminated, the worker is truly liberated to create the life they want for themselves.

Before I talk about the classroom, I want to share a few of the sites of struggle that have come up for me in the past few days. This is because, as instructors, the sites of struggle produced within the uncontrolled environment of life with which we must contend will inevitably affect the controlled sites of struggle we set up for our students in the classroom.

The first site of struggle for me has to do with punishment. The public execution of George Floyd and the following protests temporarily brought a decades old movement to the forefront, prison abolition. The movement has existed since at least the nineties, since the explosion in growth of the prison industrial complex, a complex that has starved other public resources and now touches all of us (whether we know it or not) in complex ways. Two abolitionists whose work I’ve studied for a few years now are Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Both argue that we need to re-imagine all social relations so that punishment is no longer relied upon to correct all of society’s ills. For example, take the idea of police defunding; move the extraordinary amount of public money used for police and put it into other programs for the community to head off the possibility for incarceration before it starts.

I’m currently working (very slowly) through Foucault’s lecture series “The Birth of Biopolitics.” In it he explores what he calls “governmentality” which essentially is the organization and application of various mechanisms within a political economy to get its citizens to behave in certain ways. He has something interesting to say in regards to socialism and governmentality:

I do not think that there is an autonomous socialist governmentality. There is no governmental rationality of socialism. In actual fact, and history has shown this, socialism can only be implemented connected up to diverse types of governmentality. It has been connected up to liberal governmentality, and then socialism and its forms of rationality function as counterweights, as a corrective, and a palliative to internal dangers. One can, moreover, reproach it, as do liberals, with being itself a danger, but it has lived, it has actually functioned, and we have examples of it within and connected up to liberal governmentalities. We have seen it function, and still see it function, within governmentalities that would no doubt fall more under what last year we called the police state, that is to say, a hyper-administrative state in which there is, so to speak, a fusion, a continuity, the constitution of a sort of massive bloc between governmentality and administration. At that point, in the governmentality of a police state, socialism functions as the internal logic of an administrative apparatus. Maybe there are still other governmentalities that socialism is connected up to; it remains to be seen. But in any case, I do not think that for the moment there is an autonomous governmentality of socialism (92-3).

Now, for those of you familiar with this work, before I go on to use it note two things: (1) I am not even halfway done with this work yet and (2) I am well aware of the Marxist critiques of this lecture series, the most notable being that Foucault’s analysis of anything anti-capitalist is colored by his growing interest in neoliberalism at the time, which comes out of his long dislike for socialism.

With that being said, I think there is something I can take away from this passage in regards to the site of struggle in regards to punishment. Foucault’s critique of socialism is not as an ideology (at least in this specific passage) or as a functioning state, but that, because it lacks autonomous governmentality (its own way of governing separate from other political economies), when it finds itself in power it needs to borrow governmentality from other existing systems. If you pull from liberalism, you get social democracy. If you pull from more authoritarian understandings of the individual and the state, you get Stalinism. This then brings me back to punishment. How do we, especially those of us on the left who believe in abolition, who believe in police defunding, who teach liberation in the hopes of someday seeing a socialist state, handle punishment for the break in at the Capitol? I’ve seen some conservatives offer up the “argument” that while we on the left are against the use of state violence for Black and Latinx people shot by police, we are all for using those same mechanisms for Trump supporters. The reason I say “argument” is because this ultimately is not an argument but rather a logical fallacy (whataboutism). But with that being said, proving that an argument is a fallacy does not automatically mean that it is incorrect (this is called the fallacy fallacy—isn’t critical thinking fun?). Those conservatives do have a point; I have seen posts from the left which adopt the language usually only reserved for the most heartless neoliberals—that the woman who was shot by Capitol police deserved it because she should have followed the rules, advocating for the use of Trump’s ridiculously punitive ten year sentence for harming government structures developed originally for the police protests last summer. Are we on the left okay with using state violence against those we do not have ideological affinities for? After all, state violence is not an ideology in and of itself, rather it is one mechanism within a larger governmentality necessary for capitalism’s reproduction, (which as Foucault points out can be borrowed for socialist states) part of what Althusser calls the Repressive State Apparatus, the state violence committed against workers who refuse to shut up and work, reserved for use when the ISA has not convinced them of their place within the capitalist system. It is also a mechanism that is overwhelming reserved for Black and Brown workers, as the historian Otis Madison notes when he says:“The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient.” Are we willing to adopt this mechanism within capitalism’s governmentality in the interest of moving towards liberation? Or do we, as Gilmore and Davis argue, need to imagine and implement new social relations which eliminate this mechanism altogether?

Of course, with that being said, the Capitol break in shows that there are real, physical dangers in the short term, especially to my minoritized students. The influence of white supremacy can not be ignored; more and more reports are showing that the Capitol was purposefully under policed. In addition, the reports of pipe bombs and the pictures (like the guy with zipties) are proving that the participants were not only interested in disruption and property damage but inflicting mental and physical trauma on whomever they found inside that building, all in the vain hope of securing the position of supremacy they have grown accustomed to since about 1700 for an indefinite future. So perhaps using this RSA for our own purposes in this current moment is allowable. But if so, (and I’m not decided on that—remember I am writing out sites of struggle here) how long can the RSA be used for? When do we then start the hard re-imagining necessary which would eliminate the RSA and create at least the possibility for an “autonomous socialist governmentality” which could be waiting and ready to go at the end of capitalism, in the same way that neoliberalism was waiting and ready to go at the end of Keynesian economics (demand side economics) in the 1970s?

My second site of struggle is much more directly related to teaching. It is something that has been discussed in teaching circles for a few years now. In a world in which we have a growing population of citizens, some of them our students, who have not only internalized the biopolitics of neoliberalism, who have not only been convinced of the value of white supremacy in the immediate material needs of their lives, but now also live in a post-truth world, in an information universe which is separated out from any kind of rational, objective reality, how do we conduct our classes, classes which depend on the assumptions of the Hegelian dialectical (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), of debate to move us, step by step, to the best available idea? It seems that reaching these students, and changing their minds on these issues, will be crucial if we on the left are actually committed to eliminating the RSA. The alternative, a police state enacted to constantly patrol and punish a growing number of disaffected citizens convinced that a violent transition to fascism is actually democracy, a group which is large (as the last election showed) and runs the spectrum of place in society (as the reports of ID and arrests are showing), is something those of us interested in liberation simply can not tolerate.

For me, at this present moment, reaching these students entails creating sites of struggle which do three things: (1) disprove in a non-combative way the false information universe they are currently engaged in, (2) defend the humanity of those they feel in opposition to and (3) expose the possibility for reordering social relations which would help these students see an alternative to the white supremacist/heteropatriarchy authoritarian state they are currently invested in. I am not going to spend much time on (1) and (2) here; most of us who have a few years of teaching under our belt are currently do these things. I want to concentrate on (3).

In Marx’s Capital, he talks about “commodity fetishism” which basically says that certain social relations hide others and this is necessary for capitalism’s reproduction. For example, when I buy an apple, the social relations which dictate how much money I have to spend on apples disguise the social relations of the exploitation of my comrades whom grew, picked, and shipped those apples. This fetishism can be seen in other relationships as well. Let me give you an example using myself, as a gay man.

Along with my Black, Latinx, and Asian students, in the last 4 years, I’ve also seen an assault on myself and my queer students. I have been living with these assaults all of my life; sometimes they are physical; at this point they are more ideological and the set of ideas to rationalize my marginalization morph with the times. In the 80s we spread a virus (AIDS which was originally GRID-Gay Related ImmunoDeficiency). In the 90s our humanity was considered worth less than states’ rights. In the early 2000s, our want to marry like our straight counterparts was used as a boogeyman to cement a neoconservative regime. And in the last few years, the courts have argued that our humanity should be superseded by the religious “rights” of homophobes. While there are historical reasons for this general assault which reaches back thousands of years, I want to focus on the ones which I believe directly relate to (3).

In order to do this, we need to revisit John D’Emilio’s classic article “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” D’Emilio argues that the needs of capitalism broke apart the traditional family unit, which then gave gay men a certain amount of freedom. This is nothing new; other historians have argued that our move to industrialization did this; as agriculture declined, the young men, some of whom were gay, moved into cities to work at factories, then creating new lives in the cities they worked in, thus creating the first gayborhoods. D’Emilio takes this analysis further though. He argues that part of this movement of gay men has to not only do with moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, but also because capitalism needs to commodify every process, including the ones that were normally taken care of within an extended family. Capitalism can not let you grow your own food and eat it because this kind of work does not provide surplus value; in other words, it does not create the “growth” necessary to keep the system going. It needs you to go out and work for someone else, make money for them (surplus value), and then,using your wages, go to the market and buy your food. Surplus value has to be derived from every process in a society, from potentially every social relation, otherwise capitalism can not reproduce itself. (And, of course, as we move further into late capitalism, more and more of these social relations have to be commodified at increasing intensities). In regards to commodifying the processes within the household, this commodification, especially matched with a rising cost of living and falling wages, creates an immense amount of precarity for the worker. Once gay men are visible as an identity group, this economic social relation (the commodification of processes within the household) then gets hidden by the cultural social relation of the naturalization of gay men (at least those that most closely align with the heterosexist ideal). For a straight worker then, the blame for their precarity falls squarely on the shoulders of society’s newfound acceptance of gay men and must be fought against tooth and nail.

So now that these sets of relationships have been set up, how do I, as a gay man, set up sites of struggle for those students in my class who may be parroting homophobic rhetoric? I do not want to set up a site of struggle that would lead to the student to conclude that strong “family values” is what we need and we should all go back to growing our own food. This is quite the opposite of the purpose of liberation pedagogy; the liberation of workers will not occur by reverting to older “governmentalities” and mechanisms of discipline. I could set up writing assignments where the students are asked to write about what they are worried about, what they are afraid of. And then I could assign D’Emilio’s article as reading and after the discussion, set up a writing assignment asking the student to look for connections between the article and the first writing assignment. I have already had some very limited success with similar strategies for gender using Kimmel’s “Gender, Class, and Terrorism,” and race using hooks’ “Seeing and Making Culture: Representing the Poor.” We will see.

No matter what, I know that all of these sites of struggle will be with me for a long time. When I think of the events in the past four years, a quote from Gramsci comes to mind: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” For me, as an instructor using liberation pedagogy, the only way we will combat this crisis is by setting up sites of struggle which can produce actual alternatives to neoliberal capitalism for our students, namely a doable, governable form of socialism that will actually liberate us all.