Get to Know: Derek R. Ford


Tell us about yourself. What got you into politics and how would you define yourself politically (if at all)?

My political awareness initially came through hip-hop, and Public Enemy in particular, when I was fairly young. Then, while I was still in elementary school I was introduced to communism through my best friend, whose family was from India and had historically had ties with the Communist Party of India. He was (and is) incredibly smart and advanced. He lent me a copy of The Manifesto of the Communist Party. I became politically active beginning in middle school, first around queer issues and then around police brutality and the wars on Yugoslavia, then Afghanistan, and, during my senior year, Iraq. I went to undergraduate school in Baltimore, and the proximity to DC allowed me to get more involved in the national anti-war movement, which at that time was at historic heights. Through that movement I linked up with the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). I quickly realized that they were the ones doing the bulk of the organizing work, and I knew that was a group I wanted to be a part of.

Political identification is extremely important, and there is a horrible tendency today to resist it. Now, if one doesn't want to identify oneself politically because they are waiting until they do more thinking or research, then fine. But there comes a point when we have to take a stand and declare an ideological orientation. I find the resistance to this today troubling, and it is particularly evident among academics, who are always so concerned about "problematizing" things and so on, which is really just an excuse to straddle the fence. But in general I am confused by this non-commitment, this sort of "well, I don't want to define it." That is fine in a romantic relationship, but not in politics.

I identify myself as a communist. I used to call myself a socialist, but then I would have to clarify that I'm not one of those "let's all get along socialists," who are really more like left democrats. Being a communist means being a Marxist and a Leninist, or a dialectical-materialist and a member of the Party.

How did you come to be involved with the Hampton Institute?

I worked politically with Colin Jenkins, the founding editor of the Hampton Institute, and was always impressed with Colin's political engagement. So when he and the original team launched the Institute I started following it. I was also intrigued because the mission statement talks about Antonio Gramsci and Fred Hampton, who were both communist militants and, it must be remembered, members of the Party. This is especially important to remember about Gramsci. It is very funny that, when people started to turn away from the Party in the 1980s, they turned to Gramsci. Here I am thinking in particular of Ernest Laclau and Chantel Mouffe, but a range of people made this move. It still happens today. Just last year I was at a conference, and I brought up the question of the Party, and somebody called on Gramsci and talked about how we need to build hegemony, not the Party. Apparently everyone who does this has forgotten that Gramsci was a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, and that everything he did and wrote took the communist Party as a given starting point; the Party's task, after all, was to win both the war of position and the war of maneuver. In any case, I have been following the Institute since the beginning, and when there was a call for an education chair I immediately threw my hat in the ring.

What do you think some of the goals of the Institute should be? What does the term "a working-class think tank" mean to you?

I think that the Institute should - and certainly does - provide a forum for debate about and proposals for political praxis, that is, the unity of thought and action. For me, the primacy of the "organic intellectual" is absolutely crucial to politics today; academics can't have a monopoly on political theory. They never do in practice, of course, for anyone who has ever been involved in any movement knows the tremendous amount of theorizing that takes place with political organizing. But a formal and permanent space for this to take place is necessary. That said, I also think that the Institute should foster a dialogue between activists and organizers on the one hand, and academics on the other. Hopefully this can help throw down the barricades within the ivory tower as well as on the streets.

This, to me, is a working-class think tank: a formal space that gives infrastructure to the reflection on and theorization of militant proletarian politics.

What led you to being in your particular department? What makes you so passionate about that area?

I had an ambivalent relationship with schooling until graduate school, actually. I sometimes hated school and sometimes loved it. I even temporarily dropped out of high school after 10th grade. My commitment to schooling even in my undergraduate studies was quite shaky. And I even went to very good schools throughout my life. This, to be sure, was not all politically motivated. Quite a bit of it was due to other circumstances and desires, and an exacerbated case of teen angst. But it wasn't until I started studying education in graduate school that I really began to reflect on all of this.

The education system in this country has developed historically in accordance with the needs of the capitalist mode of production. And the public education system in the U.S. is actually quite new. It wasn't until after World War II that schooling became a more generalized practice. Even though it is recent, however, the general aims and purposes of education are almost never debated. Today education is so directly linked to the needs of the global capitalist economy that this fact is never even addressed. Schooling plays an absolutely pivotal role in the reproduction of capitalism and, more importantly, capitalist social relations. In school we learn not only knowleges and skills, but also ways of being in the world, ways of relating to others, to authority, and to ourselves. In this, a tremendous violence takes place at the level of the individual, society, and the world. Because education is so central to this, and because it is such a pervasive and consuming phenomenon, it's a critical site for revolutionary intervention.

What are some of your political goals? What does "the revolution" look like to you?

I have been watching a series of interviews with Gilles Deleuze that were recently subtitled in English. In one interview, Deleuze remarks about the absurdity of people who state that revolutions tend to turn out badly, as if this is new information. Obviously, he says: "Who said that a revolution would go well? Who? Who?" Now, what Deleuze means here is something a bit more pessimistic, but I take it as an affirmation of what Mao wrote. And as far as revolution, I can't really state anything more succinctly than Mao: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another."

Revolutions must be distinguished from protest movements, social movements, and resistance movements. There are relationships between all three, but ultimately revolutions entail the overthrow of the existing order. This is a more generalized process, no doubt. It does not take place in one moment; it is a protracted and complicated process. But there is an insurrectional moment, an event that cannot be anticipated but that nonetheless happens, and that marks a definitive rupture in the course of things.

There is always a lot of groundwork that is built before the insurrectional event. This is what organizing is. I believe that one of the most insufferable aspects of the contemporary moment is the professionalization, or more appropriately, bourgeoisification of activism and organizing. I can't tell you how many times I've sat around a table at an organizing meeting and heard someone start by saying that we need to establish a "winnable" goal. Now, I'm all for winning reforms and so on. But this has come to dominate organizing. I always ask: when we ask what is winnable prior to the fight, we concede before we even begin. So organizing always has to be undertaken as doing the grueling, mostly boring, preparatory work for the insurrectional moment.

What books and/or authors would you suggest to others?

This is an impossible question, so I will instead take a look around my house and write down some of the books lying around that I have recently been reading, for teaching or my own research and activism: Capitalists & conquerors: A critical pedagogy against empire (Peter McLaren);Uneven development: Nature, capital, and the production of space (Neil Smith); The beautiful risk of education (Gert Biesta);Elements of Discussion (David Backer); Metromarxism: A Marxist tale of the city (Andy Merrifield);Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life (Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis);Philosophy of the encounter (Louis Althusser); Writings on cities (Henri Lefebvre); An American Childhood (Annie Dillard); Steppenwolf (Herman Hesse); Perestroika: A Marxist critique (Sam Marcy); Factory of strategy: Thirty-three lessons on Lenin (Antonio Negri).

What media sources do you use to keep up on current events?

My go-to sources are PressTV, Russia Today, Liberation News, and Digital Resistance. I find these outlets particularly helpful in the range of stories that they cover, their framing of world events, and their analysis. I also depend pretty heavily on news and sources shared by my comrades across the globe, like Marcel Cartier, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Lizzie Phelan, and Navid Nasr.

What kind of music do you listen to? What are some of your favorite foods?

Right now in my car I have: Dilate (Ani Difranco); Thug Matrix (Tragedy Khadafi); Doolittle (Pixies); Shadows Collide with People (John Frusciante); The War Report (Capone-N-Noreaga). I have also listened to Freeway's first album, Philadelphia Freeway, on the regular for at least a decade.

What (apolitical thing) makes you happy? What are your hobbies or interests?

I have a canine companion species named Felix (after Guattari), and he and our relationship make me particularly happy. He is a Havanese-Pekingese mix, is 4 years old, and has been accurately described as possessing "immense charm. "But this relationship is absolutely political. In her short book, The companion species manifesto, which is on my nightstand, Donna Haraway writes that, "In relationship, dogs and humans construct 'rights' in each other, such as the right to demand respect, attention, and response… The question turns out not to be what are animal rights, as if they existed preformed to be uncovered, but how may a human enter into a rights relationship with an animal?" Felix and I engage with and negotiate this question continuously. But when we are not explicitly thinking about the complexities of inter-species communication and relations, we like to take walks together and go to the dog park.

I enjoy playing the guitar, lifting weights, and snowboarding. I like to watch shows on Netflix. I am currently re-watching the Gilmore Girls (and I get less embarrassed each time I say that), as well as My So-Called Life. And I can't watch The Office enough. Because 90% of television and movies in the U.S. are about police or law enforcement, I end up watching some of that, including Criminal Minds. Recently, I re-watched RoboCop 3. I am also teaching a class about the right to the city, and I told my students to watch the movie, because it's all about capitalism and the struggle for urban space. Of course, RoboCop ends up joining the resistance to gentrification, and in that sense the movie couldn't be more fictional. Anyways, those are the least political things that bring me joy. Oh, I also live near my mom and dad, and I love spending time with them. We never talk about politics. And those two things are definitely related.