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Reading our Political Moment Pedagogically

by Sara Motta on July 6, 2016

As we face the increasingly visible rightward political shifts in the US and Europe and the ramifications of these shifts in Australia the question of ‘what can be done’, and in particular ‘what can be done to transform popular discontent into practices of emancipatory possibility’ (re)emerges.

Discussions about the possibilities for a radical and progressive political alternative often begin and remain in the moment of rupture with a focus on the visible political uprising or mobilisation and disruption of the public.

These visible forms of political protest can mark the development of new popular progressive political subjects. Yet such acts of resistance as Henry Giroux argues, can as easily become recuperated into heightened versions of populist authoritarian neoliberalism. Think the Trump and Brexit phenomenon.

The terms of the political debate are not ours. We cannot re-construct and nurture popular subjects and alternatives out of the shards of broken glass from where the police baton attempted to bash out our hope.

Movements, militants and communities across Latin America have learnt these lessons and over the last few decades have been patiently and pedagogically building the conditions of possibility for the emergence of popular projects, practices and subjects of emancipation.

If our discussions and reflections about the current political moment remain fixated on finding the issue or the event that will spark popular discontent then we will remain unable to navigate and transform the tide of popular fragmentation and disarticulation we are facing.

To shift our political lens implies shifting our focus of analysis towards the embodied praxis of movements and communities in struggle. This involves a move away from a politics that speaks over and for the popular, particularly racialised and feminised subjects on the margins, and instead speaks from this space.

Like this we open the possibilities of developing a politics that speaks back to the dehumanising and authoritarian logics and rationalities that structure (contemporary) global capitalism.

MottaOur book Constructing 21st Century Socialism in Latin America: the Role of Radical Education is forged through a commitment to this kind of critical scholarship. We demonstrate how the new emancipatory politics in the region is a deeply epistemological project.

It is a project that speaks back to a politics of knowledge that has always been premised upon the denial, negation and non-being of colonised communities and communities of colour and in the post-industrial landscape of neoliberalism of poor white communities.

The politics of knowledge of 21st century socialism speaks back to hegemonic epistemology in which racialised and feminised peoples have always been objects of interventions into their lands, lives and bodies, with violated bodies, traumatised communities, criminalised youth and stolen lands.

It speaks back to a politics of knowledge premised on an authoritarian Monologue which speaks about and for the ‘other’ for it is claimed that there is nothing to learn from ‘us’.

It speaks back to a politics of knowledge founded on the binary between the rational and civilised and the natural and uncivilised in which the Lettered-City epitomised in the figure of the great scholar and the liberal university developed theories, practices and politics to develop, modernise, experiment upon, and civilise us.

It speaks back to a politics of knowledge in which the knower is charactered by his mastery over the other, cut-off from all that is feminised and racialised; the red blood of the earth and the red blood of our bodies.

As we detail through exploration of the cases of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, as manifestations of systematic processes, contemporary globalisation and marketisation has intensified these geopolitical politics of knowledge but they are not new.

Systems of educational ranking reinforce the denial and devaluation of indigenous and local knowledge and ways of knowing through abstract criteria that are not our own.

Teaching becomes transformed into the transmission of particular facts and techniques to be deposited into the presumed emptiness of the student (an object intervened upon) to ‘teach’ them to be docile worker and individualistic consumer.

The violences of micromanagement roll out disciplinary mechanisms and rationalities to create the ‘civil’ and ‘rational’ individualising and individualistic competitive subjects, and discipline all others.

Globalised education fosters the precaritisation of academic labour which is increasingly feminised and deeply fractured into overworked, underpaid and as Richard Hall captures fosters anxiety ridden contractual conditions, rationalities and temporalities .

Deregulation and privatisation of education reinforces a two-tier educational system in which public education remains for the upper middle classes whilst technical, work related education is sold to the poor through the enticing fantasy that this will enable inclusion, happiness and success.

To access this fantasy poor students are forced to take out loans linking them to into webs of transnational finance, and the hands of debt collectors. After graduation and the fantasy cracks as work and success remain unattainable they, and their families, become legitimately disciplined and criminalised.

This politics of knowledge is legitimised, (re)produced and implemented through public pedagogies which reinforce the educational fantasy and the idea that there are no alternatives.

This consistently reproduces discourses in which the racialised and feminised communities remain the uncivil delinquents, the underdeveloped and uneducated or the irrational non-subject, legitimately subject to ‘political and policing’ interventions.

The script of the political premised on denial, negation and criminalisation of other subjects and onto-epistemological frameworks of knowing is reproduced like old wine in new bottles.

The popular body-politic divided against itself.

But to remain in this moment of negation and visibilisation of the dehumanising logics and rationalities of the politics of knowledge of (neoliberal) globalisation is not enough.

For to remain here is to assume that capitalist-coloniality is completely successful in negating our humanity, being, relations and knowledges.

Rather as decolonial feminist Maria Lugones suggests ‘it is her belonging to impure communities that gives life to her agency’ as she is, ‘a being who begins to inhabit a fractured locus…who perceives doubly, where the sides of the locus are in tension, and the conflict itself actively informs the subjectivity of the colonised self in multiple relation’.

Communities, radical and popular educators, and movement militants in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, as we demonstrate in the second half of the book, have been co-creating an emancipatory politics of knowledge out of the complexities of the fractured locus.

At the heart of the reinvention of this emancipatory politics are processes which pedagogise the political and politicise the pedagogical.

Pedagogical, is not understood as a method of learning but rather as a political-pedagogical project of popular struggle in which practices of learning and unlearning are embedded.

The pedagogical in this sense cannot be confined to the narrow limits of hegemonic understandings of education which alienates and separates the body from the mind, the classroom from the community, and the knower from the known.

These pedagogical processes involve the creation of possibility of ‘our’ speaking as political subjects with pedagogies that return to the body and embrace embodied knowledges and ways of knowing.

They involve a re-rooting of communities, who have been violently denied and negated as (knowing) subjects, into their knowledge and wisdoms through the creation of collective knowledge processes in which we come to collectively name the world and situate individual stories of unemployment, violence, exclusion and imprisonment to a shared and critical narrative that enables transformation.

Such a politicisation of the pedagogical and pedagogisation of the political occurs in formal educational settings, often on the margins of dominant processes of neoliberalisation and marketisation.

It also occurs in spaces where subjects, bodies, epistemologies and spatialities meet in movement politics, community organising and informal situated-learning processes.

These processes and projects transgress the borders and boundaries of education separated from life, and methods of learning dissociated from ethical and political commitments. Instead it seeks to co-create pedagogical projects with communities in struggle.

Within this the school is reimagined as a site for the development of thinking, autonomous and innovative subjects, who are able to collectively produce their self-liberation.

Teacher-training is reconnected to a pedagogical-political project and a conceptualisation of the ethical educator-subject as being one who is committed to an emancipatory pedagogical practice embedded in the struggles and needs of oppressed communities.

The book maps and conceptualises a multiplicity of these types of projects, practices and subjects as they are emerging in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.

One of which is the Escuela Politica de Mujeres Pazíficas (the Escuela, Political School of Pazifica Women) that emerged in the early 2000s in Cali, Colombia. It aims to develop nonviolent, feminist proposals and practices to denounce and make visible the violences experienced by (Colombian) women.

As Norma Bermudez recounts (author interview, 2012):

From the beginning we knew that the debate and dialogue we had opened would have major consequences for us and for moving beyond the old formulas of politics. We were facing something deeper; to question the meaning of politics, its objectives and its means; to question [ … ] that power is enacted not only in parliaments and battlefields, but also in social relations, on the streets, in the square, at home and in the bedroom.

Thus emerged the Escuela which works through the traditions of nonviolence, feminism and popular education to create learning spaces in which the knowledges of all women are valued.

By building on the lived knowledges and experiences of participants, the Escuela nurture new pedagogical practices that enable a collective and critical reading of the world and women’s experiences of oppression, violence and displacement.

The pedagogical process is organised in a four-month diploma course. The course is divided into four one-month parts. The first begins the dialogue of knowledges and is a time for sharing participants’ experiences and knowledge, thus grounding one another in the histories and pathways of their lives. As Norma Bermudez (author interview, 2012) explains:

So, for example if a woman living in economic poverty has learned to make recipes with which she had fed her family well and cheaply, the group makes it, tastes it, shares similar experiences. We then link this experience of making the recipe to the conditions of her life and questions such as food sovereignty through reading texts, watching videos about food sovereignty movements in Colombia and other places. We also talk about the neoliberal crisis and how this increases the weight of labour on the shoulders of women. But we also resignify her experience by identifying her practice of food sovereignty and the resilience, strength and courage it takes to survive and care for herself and her family, we link this element with her experience to an exploration of alternative forms of economy such as the feminist economy.

Situating her individual story to histories and structures and shared experiences of dispossession, exclusion and violence ruptures the dominant discourses which individualise and self-responsibilise the oppressed for their oppression.

But also importantly identifying her knowledge and resilience, and linking these to histories, movements and communities struggling for food sovereignty re-roots her agency and wisdom and foregrounds her dignity.

Centrally the complexities of her lived experience in the fractured locus are visibilised. Her agency is collectively named as political and linked to histories and practices which nurture such agency and knowledge collectively.

The knowledges embraced in the dialogue of knowledges reflect the knowing and wisdoms of the group. Accordingly, the pedagogies they develop include ritual, the senses, dancing, story-telling, singing, mapping combined with more traditional textual forms of knowledge.

Collective processes of story-telling create links of solidarity and enable monologues of isolation to become dialogues of understanding, voice and pleasure. As Pilar Restrepo, one of the participants in the Colectivo, explains (author interview, 2010):

Telling stories is a way of reconstructing reality, and sometimes, it also enables the healing of deep wounds.

The second month continues this process by moving into an exploration of key thematics led by activists and popular educators such as the history of women’s human rights, the nonviolence movement, and concepts such as gender, sexuality, diversity and ethnicity.

The third month is spent exploring, nurturing and developing multiple knowledges and pedagogies around key thematics that have emerged out of the group learning process, such as domestic violence and its link to state violence; or the embodied knowing and knowledge that the personal is political.

Such pedagogical multidimensionality – affective, cultural, psychological, embodied, physical and intellectual – has the potential to transform the multidimensional nature of gendered, raced and classed (and other) oppressions.

In the telling of their stories, these women resignify themselves and their communities in which those shamed, silenced and delegitimised become dignified co-creators of their histories, communities and selves.

Such resignification occurs (and continues afterwards) in the safe and intimate space of the first three months during which women begin to build the conditions together for their public emergence as feminist and feminised political subjects.

Here the personal, political and pedagogical are intimately and essentially intertwined.

Their public appearance as political subjects which begins in the final month of the formal course also resignifies the public and the political away from a patriarchal capitalist logic of power-over, negation and mastery of the other and towards an understanding and practice of power-within and power-with.

The public becomes a space of commonality and recognition forged through public pedagogies that recreate liberatory spaces and reclaim women’s power.

For example many women participants are raced working class women who have faced multiple experiences of state violence. These include experiences of dispossession caused by the export orientated growth strategy that privatises and concentrates land for agri-business and is enacted through the para-legal state’s strategies of gendered violence.

They also include racist and gendered interventions by the state against their families, including criminalisation of youth, child removal, and assassination when black and indigenous and poor white mothers resist such processes.

The school and its participants have been involved in a caring ritual in which the negation of working class mothers and motherhood is subverted and transgressed.

Mothers occupy part of the state buildings with the support of social work allies and enact a caring ritual. During this they take over the space of the state, and gift to state officials a self-care-kit and to their allies enact a hand or foot massage in thanks for their solidarity and support against violent state interventions.

Aside from resignifying the practice of the social workers towards community and democratising traditions of social work practice, the political itself is resignified.

Women who are misrepresented as unfit and uncaring mothers, legitimately subject to the interventions of the state onto their bodies, communities and families, become resignified as the wise collective carers of their communities and public life.

Such public pedagogies open the possibility of a reoccupation of their bodies and selves. Here racist and patriarchal articulations of black motherhood become visible and collective subject of dignity, voice and resistance emerges.

Out of this have emerged multiple themes which orientate practices of transformation: celebration of diversity, poetic politics, incarnated remembering and memory, and humor and tenderness as a vehicle to show that other social and political relations are possible.

From this praxis multiple and diverse experiences of individual and collective transformation have flourished (see;

These practices enact a decentring and unlearning of hegemonic politics of knowledge. They embrace different and multiple epistemological grounds from which to transgress capitalism and become ‘other’ in multiple post-capitalist ways.

In this transgression subjects who are violently denied and negated in the geopolitics of knowledge of global capitalism become the emancipatory subjects of our times.

These subjects are prefiguring the meaning and practice of twenty-first century emancipation and offer the gift of integral liberation.

Learning from the popular/other

Returning to the question ‘what can be done to transform popular discontent into practices of emancipatory possibility’?

What do experiences such as the Escuela say about the role of the pedagogical and a politics of knowledge in the creation of emancipatory possibilities in our difficult times?

They suggest that a new emancipatory project is not developed as a return to an authoritarian Monologue that speaks about and for the popular.

Rather it is one that builds from, and is open to, multiple grounds of epistemological becoming.

This politically foregrounds the micro politics of everyday life and active processes of learning and unlearning the oppressor’s logics as they interpolate ourselves, social relationships and communities.

It also involves creating the conditions of possibility for speaking from the silence and the negation.

This is multiple because the wounding enacted upon the popular in all its complexity involves the soul, body, emotions, memory, history, and mind.

Therefore the pedagogies and the knowledges this involves are also multiple: the embodied, affective, cognitive, spiritual.

In this practice of the political we come to prefigure ways of life, forms of knowing, being, creating and loving differently.

Here, as Audrey Lorde declares, for this we must nurture radical practices of self-care which create times, spaces and relationships that enable us to know ourselves otherwise, to emerge as political subjects and heal our communities.

There is thus a move away from a political militancy that involves critical distance and mastery towards critical intimacy and radical communion.

This cannot be premised upon the shaming, naming and disavowal of for example white working class communities who have been abandoned by the political class.

Rather our task is to weave together from the fractured locus of good sense and the experience of violent loss the possibilities for re-connection and re-creation of the popular, as project, possibility, subject and horizon.

Sara Motta
Sara C. Motta is a mother, critical theorist, and popular educator committed to reimagining in praxis emancipations. Her most recent books include “Education and Social Change in the Americas”, and “21st Century Socialism: The Role of Radical Education,” (with Mike Cole) both published by Palgrave Macmillan. She is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and is currently working on the manuscript “Liminal Subjects: Weaving our Liberation”, a decolonial feminist visioning of emancipation.
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  • Jack
    July 30, 2016 at 1:52 am

    “This is multiple because the wounding enacted upon the popular in all its complexity involves the soul, body, emotions, memory, history, and mind.”

    I liked this comment very much, it seems to me that often times violence (in its many forms, directed both inward and outward) comes from an incapacity to speak and be heard. I know from my own experience, when I cant articulate something I get increasingly frustrated and angry, its only when I am able to put it into words that Im able to properly think it through and move on. You can also see this in the proliferation of anger in comments sections etc, there is a catharsis in expressing rage and feeling like that rage is being acknowledged (of course it isn’t, but you can tell yourself it is!). A big part of the problem, in my opinion, with Left politics in Europe has been that it has been unable or unwilling to express the discontent of its historical constituencies, who are at best patronised (you might think its this, but actually its that) and at worst dismissed as bigots. The Right, is more comfortable with emotions than the Left (probably because conservatism has always been suspicios of rationalism) so it expresses the rage, but in a way that is entirely lacking in any kind of pedagogical relation, it is purely the catharsis of expression, but with no capacity for overcoming and transcendence, it becomes a cycle of blaming and shaming rather than critical reflection, it just feeds on the very resentment it purports to relieve. The problem, which I think needs to be addressed, is where exactly to create these spaces of critical reflection, the Right controls the media which is very good at articulating rage in ways that sustain structures of oppression, the Left has very few institutional spaces which can counter this. I would be interested to know where these come from in the Latin American context, I would guess that a lot are associated with the church or community organisations, which are probably not so applicable in Europe. Regardless, I do think an affective politics is needed, because so much of the most extreme violence of neoliberalism is expressed in the domain of the affective, if 19th century capitalism (in the West) destroyed our bodies, 21st century capitalism seems more concerned to destroy our souls, and this is a point at which it should be resisted.

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