Reading "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" together as Critical Public Pedagogy

Michael B. MacDonald I Education I Commentary I February 12th, 2015

On my morning bus ride I noticed two words I had not seen in a while stenciled on the back of a black jacket: Occupy Edmonton. I was reminded of the encampments, the excitement, the incessant twitter traffic and the buzz in the classroom as students and faculty debated whether a movement needed a message, whether Occupy Wall Street (Occupy) was effective, whether the 99% was a rhetorical strategy or economic and political reality. It is remarkable now that so much of that radical energy has dissipated. In fact, most undergraduate students in the classes I teach have little idea what Occupy was all about. But it is not only their lack of information that troubles me, there is something else. It is as if they were enrolled in an anti-political public education campaign and I wonder how this campaign looks like, how it operates?

Critical theorists have a lot to say on this subject. Walter Benjamin's voice would be the loudest. He taught us in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that a political education is wrapped up in popular aesthetic education. Stuart Hall would interject that, building on Gramsci, he spent a career documenting the ways hegemonic power structures naturalize power differences, making inequality seem natural, even necessary. Althusser would add that ideology is not an idea that floats above us but is what we do, how we behave, and how we interact with each other in society.

I can see these lessons at work in shocking clarity. Our entertainment industry insists that products do not represent the views of the corporation producing them. They entertain, that's it. That's all they do. But is it? In Niki Minaj's video for Only, there is an open and unapologetic celebration of nazi/authoritarian aesthetics; the centralization of power in a culture-cabal that celebrates a racist, violent, surveillance state. Henry Giroux calls this public pedagogy. It highlights educational activities that governments and corporations utilize for the production of consent.

I felt a deep bitterness as I watched the young man exit the bus because, just yesterday, (Jan. 20, 2015) Oxfam released Working for the Few a sobering and terrifying document which shows that, "Almost half of the world's wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population" and that, "The bottom half of the world's population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world," and that this already extreme economic disparity is getting worse. There should no longer be any doubt that Occupy emerged as a political response to growing inequality. But nowhere in the coverage of the report was a connection made to Occupy or other political movements against the increasing inequality caused by the proper functioning of capitalism.

The problem is striking because there is nothing wrong with the system. It is working properly. The problem is that we operate a system that is producing unbelievable inequality. But instead of recognizing this, the opposite is occurring. Popular culture references to Occupy, like its caricature in Aaron Sorkin's American Television Series News Room, is dismissive. This is an ongoing educational campaign to obscure the economic inequality that both Occupy and Oxfam illuminate. It is further troubling that, ultimately, what is being ridiculed in News Room is public participation in democracy.

Occupy was not a political party; it was democracy. Political parties and corporate media challenged the legitimacy of Occupy by comparing it to a political party, and then expecting it to perform as such. When it did not, when there was no set of issues, it was denounced by both the left and right. But Occupy was not this; it was a complex political emergence and not a naïve and leaderless mess the way it is continuously characterized by media. This unfortunate characterization is a neoliberal public pedagogy to belittle any public reaction meant to limit the increasing power of capital, evident in the centralization of wealth into the hands of 85 individuals.

In the context of the Oxfam report, Occupy can be seen as a sensible response to growing inequality, the separation of community from government, the loss of representative governance, and perhaps the shrinking of democracy. I'm not going to respond to News Room because it has been done very well elsewhere. I am going to suggest that it's time to consider developing a critical public pedagogy to the neoliberal public pedagogy of corporate media.

"You can't evict an idea whose time has come"

For most of us today it is hard to imagine working class public learning. That from the 1800s to the 1970s labour movements, churches, political parties, social movements, unions, and even some universities were actively involved in community education. All of these movements had the interests of communities at the center of their educational philosophy. Education was the responsibility of community and not solely the professional educator. As Paulo Freire pointed out in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, communities already possess knowledge and methods of teaching and learning, the professionalization of educators risks the oppression of learners.

In the wake of the Oxfam report it is clearly not a matter of whether or not learners are oppressed or incorporated into methods of oppression, it is now very clear that the economic system that Felix Guattari calls "Integrated World Capitalism" functions as a machine to efficiently produce inequality. That capitalism produces inequality and that it must be resisted by a political community education was already well known in Marx's time and incorporated both into Marxist and anarchist political organizations. There are still traces of this, of course. But we are no longer in the 19th century, and no longer struggling against the factory boss as the center of power. Public pedagogy in the digital era requires nuanced methods of critical public pedagogy. Adbusters was created as precisely this form of critical public pedagogy, and Occupy might be understood as a contemporary form of critical community education.

What is critical public pedagogy and how does it work?

My hometown, Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the early part of the 1900s was under the control of coal mining companies. The coal miner worked for "the company" lived in houses owned by "the company" and purchased groceries at "the company" store. Miners were extended credit against their pay that often left workers and families indebted to "the company". If injured or sick miners families could be evicted as there was nothing to protect the worker from the dictates of capital.

Cooperatives and adult education programs were developed as a way of struggling against the expansive reach of exploitative capital. Building on developments that stretched back to the 1800s a collection of priests and educators called the Antigonish Movement were moved to resist the economic oppression suffered in mining communities. The realization that community learning was essential to increased economic equality led priests to stop giving prayers at confession and start handing out manuals to build community development capacities. These priests politicized their pedagogy and shared books and supported the creation of study groups. Cooperatives developed, international relationships of mutual support grew and slowly workers organized and won rights. The foundations of the liberation of my hometown was a democratic community learning movement with community development as its goal.

Before we can explore contemporary critical public pedagogy we need to understand the form of capitalism that we are engaging. It is no longer the capitalism of the Antigonish Movement with the forms of repression embodied in "the company". It is no longer Marx's Capital. It is also no longer Freire's economic development sketched out in Education for Critical Consciousness. It is something else. As Italian Autonomist Marxists have pointed out Capitalism is no longer simply operations of production that occur on the marketplace and the factory floor, it is the production of capitalist society, a social factory. As we have learned from Italian autonomism the factory worker of capitalism is now a social worker, making social life with products, cultural workers producing capitalist-cultural life within culture centres.

Capitalism is not only a system of exchange but also an epistemological factory producing knowledge that conforms to the laws of profit as surely as scientists conform to scientific laws in the production of scientific knowledge. It is not simply enough to point to neoliberalism-as if it can be pointed out-as Freire has shown in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the oppressor-oppressed is a binary produced by a system that captures both, which we call capitalism. Freire argues for critical consciousness, conscientization, or conscientização as the process by which we collectively produce critical awareness of the functioning system. Critical consciousness alone, however, is insufficient if it doesn't lead to critically informed action. Education does this. This is why public pedagogy is so important to identify, why News Room's account of Occupy, or Niki Minaj's celebration of authoritarianism requires critique. Without critique of public pedagogy, and without critical action to build community solidarity, the public pedagogy of contemporary capitalism remains unchallenged. W.E.B. DuBois, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Fred Hampton, bell hooks, and Angela Davis have all taught us that political liberation is a community-self activity.

What I find most interesting is that capitalism not only functions as exchange but through exchanges produces subjectivities that are properly developed for capitalism. The priests in the Antigonish Movement first had to convince coal miners that their lives, at this moment, were not all they could be and that the world could be better through learning, commitment and community development. Our struggle is no different. Today's educators and activists need to articulate a critical public pedagogy capable of working against the radical inequality described in the Oxfam report.

The first step is to understand how public pedagogy shapes capitalist epistemology and leads our society to instantly notice the growth of inequality while allowing the production of inequality to remain invisible in plain sight. Maurizio Lazzarato describes this phenomenon, capitalism as a system of knowledge production:

The semiotic components of capital always operate in a dual register. The first is the register of "representation" and "signification" or "production of meaning", both of which are organized by signifying semiotics (language) with the purpose of producing the "subject", the "individual", the "I". The second is the machinic register organized by a-signifying semiotics (such as money, analog or digital machines that produce images, sounds and information, the equations, functions, diagrams of science, music, etc.), which "can bring into play signs which have an additional symbolic or signifying effect, but whose actual functioning is neither symbolic nor signifying". This second register is not aimed at subject constitution but at capturing and activating pre-subjective and pre-individual elements (affects, emotions, perceptions) to make them function like components or cogs in the semiotic machine of capital. (Lazzarato 2006)

Machinic enslavement first introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in a two-part analysis of contemporary capitalism called Anti-Oedipus, is developed on a cybernetics notion that systems function by controlling their component parts. Cybernetics, being the study of control systems, looks at enslavement within a control system not as slavery in the older notion of blatant oppression, but as systems of control that allow actors to operate freely but within a predetermined range. It has been noted that contemporary philosophers, like Luciana Parisi, describe contemporary capitalism as second-order cybernetics that "constitutes the dominant interactive paradigm of capitalism today, revolves around the idea that the observer is also part of the system and concerns notions of reflexivity, self-organisation, autopoiesis, the contingency of environmental factors, and the indeterminacy of living systems."

Capitalism is not simply, or not only, the distribution of capital for profit it is a productive and semiotic operator that creates resources, producers and consumers as much as products. Capitalism is a knowledge system and public pedagogy is how that knowledge is taught.

What about community development and social economy initiatives, are these not steps forward, and don't these offer solutions to reduce inequality, to combat poverty while using the mechanisms of capitalism? The short answer is I don't know. But I do know that we need to create systems of research and evaluation that critically interrogate not only the rhetoric but also the impact of proposed solutions. Oxfam has shown that economic inequality has increased since Occupy and that capitalism produces inequality. And here we find ourselves in what Gregory Bateson called a double bind: a) engagement in capitalism produces economic inequality and b) community development requires capitalism.

Freire found himself in just such a double bind in Brazil in the 1950s. Brazil was industrializing and Freire was tasked to support indigenous communities develop the literacy skills necessary to participate in community economic development. But he also realized that teaching Portuguese in indigenous communities advanced colonization. The double bind: a) teaching Portuguese literacy advanced colonization and increased inequality b) not teaching literacy left indigenous communities out of industrialization and increased inequality. The solution was a method of political literacy education that helped communities identify forces of inequality and to develop the capacities necessary to create projects, programs, activities, and agencies that would produce a more equal society. We are tasked with the same double bind. The Oxfam report has begun to sketch out the nature of inequality, Occupy has provided a model of networked community learning, Henry Giroux has provided us a way of understanding the teaching and learning functions of capitalism and now it's our turn to develop a critical pedagogy of our time.

Working towards this I have started a reading circle in Edmonton, Canada, on Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Borrowing a model from David Harvey's A Companion to Marxist Capital, we are going to produce a series of essays to help support collective readings of Pedagogy of the Oppressed wherever they might develop. This is our response to the Oxfam report and we will share our essays with you in the hopes that we might move towards a critical public pedagogy of capital.


Althusser, Louis. (2014) On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso.

Bateson, Gregory.(2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (1968). "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In Illuminations, edited by Arendt Hannah. New York: Harcourt Brace & World.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. (2009) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London, UK: Penguin.

Foucault, Michel. (2004).The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982. New York: Picador.

Foucault, Michel. (2010). The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College De France 1982-1983. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Foucault, Michel. (1988). "Technologies of the Self." In Technologies of the Self, edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

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Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fuentes-Nieva, Ricardo, and Nicholas Galasso. (20 Jan 2014) Working for the Few: Political capture and economic inequality. Oxfam International Briefing Paper. See,

Giroux, Henry A. (2000). Public Pedagogy As Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the 'Crisis' of Culture. Cultural Studies 14 (2): 341-60.

Giroux, Henry A. 1997. Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture, and Schooling, The Edge: Critical Studies in Educational Theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Giroux, Henry A. 2003. The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Giroux, Henry A. 2004. "Public pedagogy and the politics of neo-liberalism: Making the political more pedagogical." Policy Futures in Education, 2 (3-4): 494-503.

Giroux, Henry A. 2009. Youth in a suspect society: Democracy or disposability? New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Guattari, Felix.(2008). Molecular Revolution in Brazil. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series

Hall, Stuart. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Harvey, David. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, David. (2013) A Companion to Marxist Capital. New York: Verso.

Harvey, David. (2014). Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

hooks, B. (1990). Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston, MA: South End Press.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge..

hooks, bell. (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. (2013). Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. (2014) Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)

Marx, Karl. (2013) Capital. Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions.

Parisi, Luciana. (2013) Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.