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What if we renamed ADHD “cognitive nomadism”?

20 Oct

I recently read an interesting article on ADHD which suggested that the genes that cause it are a legacy of nomadic ancestors:

One genetic variation that causes ADHD-like traits is more common in the world’s nomadic peoples. Researchers think that traits such as impulsive behavior, novelty-seeking, and unpredictability might help nomads track down food and other resources. So the same qualities that make it challenging to excel at a desk job may have been an advantage to nomadic ancestors.

I am skeptical about this,  given the long history of empires attempting to dominate  nomadic peoples, and the roles of education and medicine in this domination.  Will this research be used to further stigmatize and pathologize the descendants of nomads who have migrated to the US because their peoples and cultures were destroyed by U.S.-backed wars?

US Empire claims to be orderly, organized, and efficient.  It encodes these characteristics as normal, able-bodied, white, sane, male, straight, professional, and healthy.  People of color, queer people, gender non-conforming people, indigenous people, and people with disabilities are coded as the opposite of these traits.   The system deems them a problem that must be contained like an Ebola epidemic so that they don’t contaminate the body politic.

When schools suggest students with ADHD should be medicated and taught to conform, are they helping students navigate daily life in the empire, or are they playing into this system of control, cutting off potential creativity and rebellion?

I’m wondering what the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari would say about ADHD.  They are strong advocates of nomadic ways of thinking and living, and argue that nomadic practices are part of contemporary struggles for freedom. They claim nomadic tendencies exist not only among indigenous peoples but also in the heart of empires, destabilizing them.  They say that all human beings have a tendency to deterritorialize, to roam outside of the settled concepts, routines, traditions, and institutions that shape us; they argue this is a crucial part of creative cultural production.  Their work has been extended by decolonial, Marxist, queer, and anarchist theorists who aim to destabilize borders, empires, and fixed / frozen social identities.  It  has also been extended by people who see migration and the creation of diasporas as potential ways to break down and move beyond the constraints of capitalist nation states.

To be clear, I’m not trying to romanticize nomadic life, ADHD, or migration.  All of these involve real struggles and real human longings for consistency, commitment, community, and self-organization.  Deleuze and Guattari also recognized this when they said that every deterritorialization is also potential reterritorialization. I also don’t mean to deny the practical strategies people with ADHD use to survive day to day life in our society, or the importance of giving youth  chances to learn these strategies.

I’m just saying that those genes that express traits labeled ADHD are not vestiges of  savagery that must be remolded in the name of progress.  They are important expressions of human biodiversity and neurodiversity that  could help create new futures.  Saying they are not adaptive to modern desk jobs implies that cubicles  represent the end of history, humanity’s final resting place. What if nomadic  impulses might help us all collectively wander and fight  our way to something better? What  if they are remnants of courage and curiosity that enable a future exodus from our overstressed, boring  society?

The postmodern liberal arts education I received at a particularly progressive Ivy League university gave me the privilege to explore, to roam through concepts,  genres, and discourses at will.  There were a lot of things about this school that also tried to force me into alienation, despair, careerism, and anxiety.   But I did get to  spend four years reading what I wanted to and staying up late in the dorms discussing it.  If I said something off topic or showed up late it was seen as a mark of an eccentric intellectual, not a problem to be controlled.

Most working class students of color have none of these privileges.  They are expected to learn what the system tells them to learn and if they get bored or restless they are punished and stigmatized as defective.

Given that, I wonder:  is there a connection between schools’ attempts to keep students on task and the state’s attempts to police and limit the movement of human bodies, especially bodies it encodes as black and brown?   Should we be teaching students with ADHD to adapt to the routines of the capitalist empire, or should we be adapting the ways we learn so that youth can unleash their positive forces of deterritorialization? Maybe they’ll end up creating social movements that transform reality  and free all of us from cubicles.


I explored some ways to embrace cognitive nomadism in a previous blog post, Freestyle Learning in the Rhizomatic Cypher.  This includes suggestions for how to organize learning activities that build on the power of curious tangents, rather than attempting to herd students into fenced-off fields of study.

Culturally incompetent cultural competence trainings

6 Oct

I recently had an insightful conversation with a coworker and mentor who has deep roots in communities of color in Seattle. We were discussing cultural competency and how a lot of trainings around that focus on formalized social service techniques and objectified cultural knowledge, rather than informal relationship building, caring, and networking.

This implicitly downgrades the importance of the already existing informal networks among communities of color. It downgrades the agency people have to produce and reproduce culture and resilience in the first place, e.g. the ways in which my coworkers of color know our students’ grandparents, aunties, friends, etc., which builds trust between us and our students.

Instead of teaching people how to honor these relational networks and how to earn a place within them through showing respect, many cultural competency trainings focus on teaching white people objectified sociological knowledge about communities of color; they impart this to white people through a kind of banking-model pedagogy that encourages white people to treat everyone else like characters out of a sociology textbook, as if people of color only exist as the opposite of white privilege. A certain social and emotional distance is maintained.

This results in white people who are hypervigilant about their privilege and are versed in calculating techniques of social interaction with people of color, but don’t know how to actually build mutually caring relationships that could challenge that privilege.

As Andrea Smith talked about, this also ends up reinforcing the white colonial subjectivity, the anthropological mind. People with this mindset are self-critical and self-reflexive, but from a distance. They continue to use people of color as mediums for their own self-reflection, as if people of color exist only to help white professionals check their privilege and overcome their biases.

As a result, cultural competency training never gets to a decolonial process of creating knowledge and selfhood together, through collective power and love.

It also implicitly assumes that people of color cannot overcome their own biases, and that the informal relationships among them are possible sources of corruption or inappropriately emotional connection. It values abstracted, reified, homogenous, and unchanging “cultures” rather than the millions of different ways in which people constantly change their cultures through relating to each other in creative ways.

In this sense, many of the methods through which cultural competency is taught are themselves Eurocentric and culturally incompetent.

Freestyle Learning in the Rhizomatic Cypher

3 Apr

Recently I’ve been wrestling with a question many teachers face: what should we do when our students’ learning journeys roam out of our carefully constructed lesson plans? We call these moments tangents, but what if they are actually creative lines of flight?

My formal teacher training didn’t prepare me to answer this question; the only solution I was taught was to suppress these tangents in order to make sure students meet my learning objectives.  I’m experimenting with new approaches now, based on my students’ interventions in the classroom, the philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari, and the dynamics of hip hop production.

My teaching masters program was useful as far as masters’ programs go; my professors were certainly supportive of my efforts to teach critical literacy, ethnic studies, and open-ended discussion to youth who are considered “at risk” by official society.  They gave us plenty of intellectual ammunition to hurl back at the corporate eduction reformers who want to control and standardize learning at the expense of teachers, my students, and youth from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

However, my professors’ hostility to standardization operated at the level of society, not at the level of the classroom.  They taught us to advocate for our right to create our own lesson plans, free from the proto-totalitarian influences of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the other billionaires who want to recreate education in the image of their machinery.   But they emphasized that our lessons themselves must be tightly planned. If they had any political program, it might be summed up as “all power to the teachers, the professionals who know how to craft effective plans, tailored to their specific situations.”

I’ve partially bought into this, out a desire for my own labor to be creative and well done.   I also see its usefulness in terms of challenging the informal social hierarchies that permeate every classroom.  For example, teachers need to intentionally plan to check our own biases.  We need to intentionally organize our classroom layout and our activities so that students talk to each other, instead of simply talking to us, the people they’ve been trained to treat as authorities.  And of course, we need to plan to differentiate the curriculum, so that students with disabilities are not left behind.

All of this certainly can advance beyond the banking model of education, where the teacher deposits knowledge in the students’ brains, which they then regurgitate on the test. But it still assumes that the teacher is the one who should set the pace, rhythm, direction, and content of the democratic discussions that our lesson plans are supposed to foster.

Teachers divide learning activities into discrete bundles, which we call learning objectives.  We choose these objectives so each assignment builds on the previous one,  in chains of increasing cognitive complexity, beginning with understanding facts and moving through application and  analysis toward independent production of original work. My best lessons are tightly organized in these ways, and my students certainly build up confidence and motivation when they meet the initial objectives.

However, sometimes they use that confidence in ways that surprise me, and that diverge from the learning objectives I had in store for them further down the road. In many ways, these moments remind me of social movements I’ve been a part of, where crowds in motion suddenly change the political terrain, making our well-crafted strategies obsolete overnight.

Similarly, my students’ thinking becomes nomadic, roaming right out of the lessons I’ve mapped out for them.  They open up entirely new lines of flight that lead into uncharted and possibly dangerous intellectual and emotional territories.  For example, we are talking about religion’s role in society and suddenly a student shouts out “I’m gay, does that mean I won’t go to heaven?”, or we’re talking about  some contemporary political debate and suddenly three students demand to know why the economy crashed and a fourth wants to figure out whether it has something to do with the Illuminati and a fifth makes a speech against conspiracy theories, prompting a debate that engulfs the class for the rest of the period.

I’m not talking about the moments where  bored students tactically lay out a piece of  tangent-bait hoping the teacher will get derailed so they don’t have to do their classwork. Usually those tangents are even more predictably scripted than our lessons.   I’m talking about moments where students go on tangents precisely because they are NOT bored. Moments where the planned learning activities open up a vortex of emotion and thought  because they touch on concepts, issues, and experiences that students usually do not get a chance to discuss in their daily lives.  Something one student says resonates with the others, and it unfolds a waterfall of thoughts that students didn’t know they urgently needed to talk about until that moment.  Now they are not going to want to talk about anything else – except for everything else that relates.

No matter what the teacher does, these new thought-machines have taken flight and are forming brainstorms of connections with each other, unfolding into wider and deeper layers of complexity at a pace the teacher can’t keep up with.   The thinking we are doing together has become bigger than the teacher, and bigger than the students, and it demands space to form more and more connections.

Recently I’ve been reading the works of the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, who shed some light on these moments.  They argue that the universe is composed of pure difference constantly folding and unfolding itself into new identities.   The forms and identities that exist at any given moment are real, but they are not the only way the world might have ended up, and they are constantly changing themselves into something else.  New possibilities are always opening up, as people and things leak out of our identities in all directions.  We open up lines of flight that break from the paths society has charted out for us, becoming nomadic, creating new lives.

This process does not fit neatly within the borders of the individual person.  It leaks out of our minds, bodies, and identities.  It happens within the individual, and among individuals as we interact, overlapping with our selves.   Lines of flight are like desires, but we  are not talking about “my” desires, or yours.  We are talking about creation that seems to take a hold of me, you, and others, unleashing life we didn’t’ know we had in us.

In this sense, learning is not about discovering perfect truths that represent a stable reality composed of separate people and objects.  That kind of learning leads to understanding , posing objectives like “students will identify what these things are, and show this on a test”.   It objectifies things, and thus it objectifies knowledge.  Instead of seeking understanding, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the really interesting pursuit is learning to think – which often involves learning to feel.   Thought does not simply discover things, it creates new lines of flight.  It creates concepts and desires that traverse our bodies and minds, weaving among each other and the people, machines, plants, animals, cities, economies, words, and music we interact with.

This is the kind of learning that my students seem most excited about, and when it erupts in the classroom, I’m reminded of why I love teaching/ learning.  It is not simply about planning  for social change; it is a movement with its own velocity and rhythm.  Teaching/learning is about creating new concepts together with our students, going on  nomadic journeys together in ways that undermine and cross society’s borders.  Learning this way is always potential anarchy.

As Dave Cormier puts it,

I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections i would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.

To borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor, learning is less like a tree, and more like a rhizome.  Learning like a tree implies hierarchy – you start with the roots, the base of knowledge, then you build upward in a predetermined trunk of application and analysis, and only then can you branch out and create fruits of your learning.  This is similar to how I was taught to structure my learning objectives in graduate school – each lesson must build off the previous one in a planned way.

In contrast, a  rhizome is a root structure with no clear beginning and end, no up or down.  It can expand itself in multiple directions by creating networks, intertwining with soil, tress, and other rhizomes, and for this reason it is both innovative and resilient.   It is organized, but not in a centralized or standardized way.  It self-organizes, just like my students do when they push a class discussion into fruitful tangents.

This process reminds me  of hip hop, which is no surprise considering that my students are both producers and consumers of hip hop’s cutting edges.  Hip hop, at it’s best, does not follow a formula.  It does not build on previous cultural genres in a linear way.  Instead, it pulls little pieces of previous songs together into new networks of beats and samples.  Then it pulls pieces of experience together into networks of rhymes that refer to each other and to life in exploratory, playful ways.

A Hip hop freestyle “reads” or interprets the current moment, writing its interpretations into new concepts immediately (without the mediation of approved intellectual categories).   Concepts, images, sounds, senses, and experiences relate to each other in ways that don’t try to capture reality; instead, they sample and play (with) it.

For example, the emotional resonance of a certain beat combines with the stress a rapper puts on a specific word which evokes new ways that word is being spoken in particular cities that are going through their particular crises, resistances, and renaissances.   Hip hop is learning, combining culture, current events, politics, and many other discourses and structures.  But it connects things together that didn’t have any obvious connection before hip hop spun and palpated them into networks of sound and color.   Hip hop is about growing rhizomes and nomadic journeys.

Unfortunately, students who immerse themselves in these journeys are then inserted into tidy boxes called classrooms, where they are expected to take their headphones off so they can consume and produce knowledge  using methods originally designed to train workers for factory assembly lines.

No wonder they rebel.  Many of the so-called disciplinary problems  in classrooms might actually be a subterranean class struggle between nomadic rhizomes, and the structure that aims to chop them into pieces of identity so it can channel them into official trajectories of career, family, conformity, citizenship, gender, and race.   Schools are the explosive meeting places where students’ rhizomatic journeys crack the system’s concrete, and roses grow through the cracks, as Tupac famously narrated.

So maybe teachers should organize classrooms in ways that participate in this rhizomatic learning instead of choking it with linearly planned lessons modeled after tree trunks and assembly lines.   Maybe we should create learning environments where students can sample and reorganize thoughts in new ways, like many of them do when they produce hip hop.   Maybe we should let our classroom discussions become freestyle cyphers, where students can immediately interpret each other’s thoughts into new lines of flight.

I’m still exploring how to do this.  But one thing I’ve started to do is to make freestyle creation of concepts the learning objective of the lesson itself.  That way,  tangents become the point, and the whole class becomes a set of tangents, like the roots of a rhizome.  I plan out lessons to share what skills students need to know in order to prepare for this, so that no one is left out (e.g. I teach them how to do an internet news search, or how to check for bias in a source).  But then I let them think in multiple directions, allowing the objectives and the curriculum to emerge out of the process.

For example, we’ve recently been doing freestyle research cypher sessions.   Students sit in a circle and each gets a copy of a Freestyle Research Worksheet and a laptop***.   The teacher writes a few topics on the board, choosing from  a survey of student interests conducted earlier.  Everyone starts by researching one of those topics online, finding articles, images, and video related to it, and filling out their worksheets with this information.  Whenever they find something interesting, they share it with the whole class, and the teacher projects it on the overhead projector and asks students what they see/ hear and what they think about it.  These discussions then encourage other groupings of students to research topics related to what was discovered. Eventually different groupings emerge based on what students are interested in pursuing further, as they wander into related topics or concepts.  At the end, we have an open discussion about what we’ve learned, and students write reflections integrating their new ideas together, drawing connections between the different topics.

I recognize there is a danger that students might simply touch on topics superficially, especially when there is not enough time to explore each of their interests in enough depth.  It is important to keep track of issues or topics that might need further elaboration and to come back to them, possibly using these cyphers as jumping off points to construct more traditional lesson plans with scaffolded objectives. This could help students develop the background knowledge necessary to analyze particularly difficult issues that come up and could make future freestyle research discussions more fruitful.

In any case, this is an experiment, not a perfect answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post.  I am curious how other teachers and learners might answer this question in different ways.  That’s why I’m throwing this post out into the blogosphere –  which, of course, is its own rhizomatic learning process.


* The worksheet has multiple cells in google doc form, which students can fill out electronically and can share with the teacher and each other so they could collaborate on filling it out together if they want. This also makes it easier to project their findings onto an overhead screen.

**We are luckily enough to have laptops that work, which is not guaranteed in this era of austerity.  It could also be done with archives of newspaper clippings, photos, artifacts, etc.  I’ve also allowed students to use their smartphones, which lessens the conflicts students and teachers are always having about whether they should be allowed to use their phones in class.


Review of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht

8 Mar

Strike_for_AmericaThis is a book review submitted by my friend Dennis Gravey from Portland.  It is especially timely considering that the group Social Equality Educators in Seattle is currently running a slate of candidates for office in the Seattle Education Association, our local teachers’ union. As far as I can tell, they are inspired by the strategy pursued by CORE in Chicago.   Gravey assesses the strengths and weaknesses of that strategy.   I have some disagreements with his assessments and am skeptical of focusing on building union caucuses, as I had laid out here.  If I have time I’ll write a response to Gravey and Uetricht and post it on this blog.

Micah Uetricht’s new book on the Chicago Teachers Union and their historic 2012 strike, Strike for America, out from Verso Press with a Jacobin Press imprint, offers a useful and intelligent reflection on an event that has become a cornerstone of labor activists’ sense of recent history. It offers a number of useful analyses and accounts, and will hopefully become a tool both for activists within education and the left movement more broadly.  In addition, it poses some interesting and current theoretical and strategic questions that help us think through some of the toughest intellectual tasks of our time.


The book is organized around two essays first about the rise of CORE (the Caucus of Rank and File Educators), of which the CTU strike leadership were members, and one on the strike itself.  These two are then followed by an extended reflection on the future, both of the CTU and the labor movement more broadly. On the rise and model of CORE the book offers a number of thoughts about strategies for rank and file renewal of existing unions and in particular the role of radicals in that project including strategies both once in leadership and for gaining power.


Uetricht counterposes two models for an organized radical force, boring-from-within, where radical elements attempt to influence existing leadership (pg. 30) and seizing control, where an organized faction takes power and makes unified decisions. Uetricht account of CORE’s model describes a subtly different path of an organization whose members assumed leadership, but maintained an autonomous ideological and organizational pole not only where strategy can be developed, but where dissent and education can take place. He explains that, “the caucus brought an insurgent leadership into power, but has acted independently of it” (pg. 42). This allowed the caucus to hold its leadership accountable, remain rooted in the rank and file, and become a pole for dissident rank-and-filers to gather organically and develop their insurgent potential. Without taking power, this pole would have been drastically less impactful, but without its independence and flexibility it is unlikely the result would have been as dynamic and exciting.


Uetricht acknowledges this model is not new, and is very similar to many experiments in rank-and-file organizing by American Left organizations in the 1970s, but it is an inspiring idea as more members of the activist left become engaged in workplace centered political work (the current IWW being a prime example of this). The rewards in this case are obvious, but the challenge will be figuring out how to continue the work of building a left pole outside of specific, if significant, institutions.

CTU organizer Brandon Johnson passes out leaflets and petitions to canvassers at Lewis Elementary.  Photo from

CTU organizer Brandon Johnson passes out leaflets and petitions to canvassers at Lewis Elementary. Photo from

Beyond the basic terms of strategy, CORE also offers an interesting example of a path to power. Rather than forming explicitly as rank-and-filers, and basing their organizing around the bread and butter interests of union membership, they formed around the more diffuse struggle regarding public education in Chicago. The roots of CORE lie not in previous union reform efforts, but in the struggle around school closings where leaders like Jackson Potter and Jesse Sharkey became recognized a leaders of a struggle largely driven by parents and students. Their identities as teachers was strategically useful in this context, but was not the main driving force for their involvement. Uetricht’s description shows an organization that initially had more focus on broader issues and ideological development, like reading Shock Doctrine together, and only subsequently moved to take union leadership after it became clear this was the only way to further the struggle for public education.


Discourse around union democracy and the political struggle in unions often centers on whether or not leadership serves the rank-and-files interests as workers, and imagines the project of union renewal as a project of forming better unions. CORE poses a serious challenge to this model in that it demonstrates that union renewal can, and maybe can only happen through a broader activation of workers’ sentiments for a better world and by forming organizations around ideological affinity, uniting around political vision and critiques, rather than bread-and-butter economism, i.e. following narrowly defined lines of economic interests as the foundation of union building. Of course there’s an argument to be made that teachers are more open to these more abstract forms than other workers, but there’s also an argument that economistic mobilizations actually tail more class-wide projects.  Indeed history casts severe doubt on the idea that one moves linearly from concrete, practical economic demands like wages to the more abstract, lofty demands for a radically transformed world.  We have to start seeing a more dynamic relationship between utopian dreaming, explicitly revolutionary activity, and the everyday bread and butter concerns that structure so much social tension and struggle, and this is what Uetricht’s account helps us do.


The idea that the project of reviving unions is centered outside the bread and butter, is deepened by Uetricht’s account of the strike itself and particularly the everyday solidarity present throughout Chicago during the strike. Not only did polls consistently show strong support for the teachers, Uetricht includes personal accounts that are difficult to fathom, receiving a free pastry and words of support from non-union baristas and even a free bus ride, all for merely wearing his union t-shirt. He implies that the real meaning of the CTU strike was not the struggle of workers against their employers, or even material effects of effective industrial action, but the work that the strike did on the class consciousness and collective sense of workers in Chicago.


Building off of CORE’s more ideological roots, the strike did more than create an effective union, it created an effective example of class struggle and helped build a sense of solidarity throughout the city and even activate sectors of the class seemingly far from their rank-and-file membership (though one of the unique aspects of public teachers are their embeddedness in the lives of working class families). Today it’s rare to see a union strategy so explicitly aimed at developing class consciousness and changing the collective sense of workers. Even more rare is this strategy being paired with effective, well organized, and dramatic action rather than the abortive or weak efforts at fomenting mass struggle like SEIU’s fast food organizing, UFCW’s Our Walmart campaign, or numerous IWW efforts.


Uetricht highlights that the overall result of this process was a destabilization of the ruling coalition of the Democratic Party. This offers an important question for Lefitsts: what is the relationship between this coalition and our revolutionary project? In some ways this is a fancy way of asking how relevant electoral politics are, but I want to highlight the lesson that Uetricht gestures at, which is that substance of this coalition is not which organizations do what and who gets in office, but how these movements affect the ideas, sentiments and activity of masses of people. The problem for the Democratic coalition posed by the CTU is not that it loses a funding source, which can easily be made up for from Wall Street, but that it loses the legitimacy among Chicagoans and poses a serious challenge to the possibility of an Emmanuel machine. The question is, what do we do with that lost legitimacy, do we run candidates, or do we build alternative power, and if we do run and win candidates, what will they be capable of? Uetricht cites the Teamster rebellion of 1934 in Minneapolis, which was helped along by the relatively sympathetic Farm Labor Party regime in Minnesota, but it was ultimately not those elected officials, but the strikers in the street that made one of the most important events of the American working class struggle.


Uetricht interlaces this account of union strategy with political and historical framing of the efforts to dismantle public education in Chicago. He identifies a “neoliberal” project of “privatizing” or “corporatizing” public education, through charters, philanthropic investment, school closing, and most centrally to the CTU, the attempts to break the teachers union. These strategies are in place throughout the country and have a great deal of unified coordination nationally through DC policy makers, ideologues, and monied foundations. The materialist core the analysis seems to be that Capital is using the financial crisis of 2008 to motivate a cycle of primitive accumulation over the public sector and use privatization of public enterprises as a new source of profit.


This analysis seems plausible, but I think falls short, just as the idea of the Prison-Industrial-Complex as a source of cheap labor fails to understand the real dynamics of social control as well as numerically not being substantiated (See the work by Loic Wacquant for a more developed account of this). It’s unclear if the potential profits garnered through this strategy are a viable way out of the accumulation crisis faced by Capital, and what’s more it tends to falls into a false narrative that counterposes privately held capital as “capitalist” and publicly held enterprises are more “socialist,” and ones that therefore might work to undermine capitalist hegemony. More than seeking profit, Leftists must ask why Capital sees it as advantageous to restructure public education when the system in place over the last three decades has been roughly successful at maintaining mass docility and a relatively easily exploitable labor supply. Austerity likely has more to do with shifting strategies of white supremacy, so called “surplus populations,” which are no longer useful to capital accumulations as either workers or consumers, and changing needs of the labor market due to automation than with a direct effort by Capital to use a formerly public sector as new grounds for profits.


As a final thought I want to discuss one of Uetricht’s boldest claims, that the CTU strike was a qualitative leap forward from previous movements like Occupy and the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. He writes that, “it was the CTU strike that first identified that rising tide in the form of an angry union membership and channeled it into an effective, militant political form, winning real gains and building power both for education workers and the communities they serve” (12). This will likely ruffle some feathers and I have sympathy with both the claim and the ruffle. I think it’s an idea that must be handled with care.


There’s a danger in thinking that the ultimate success of a cycle of struggle lies in the way it transforms the leadership and activity of specific institutions, and Uetricht comes dangerously close to implying that the upsurges of 2011 are significant only insofar as they impact the halls of power. In contrast to this, the reading I’m trying to pull out from this book, albeit a bit against the grain, is that the ultimate arbiter of the significance of both the less coherently organized formations in 2011, and the more coherently organized CTU strike, is the relationship they have to the broader and more diffuse sentiments, ideas and activity of masses of people throughout society, within and without protest movements or the specific organizations. What matters is not the specific organized acts but the way these acts reconfigure the balance of social forces through changing the apparently unorganized activity of millions of people.


In this light the CTU strike offers and important lesson on the relationship between spontaneity and organization. The debate is not: organization good v. spontaneity good; or: material impact more important v. material impact less important. Rather, it must be about how specific forms of organization express and transform the activity of millions of people in such a way that it advances a revolutionary process. What’s important about the CTU strike is not that it made more material headway in combatting neoliberalism, and could have only done so by being an organized, institutional force. But rather, that as an organized, institutional force that was able to make material headway against neoliberalism, it had unique power and potential to transform mass activity outside of institutions and specific organizational wills, activity that in a conventional sense appears as unorganized. This dynamic played itself out again in Portland where the potential (though unactualized) teachers strike allowed the students and other sectors of the activist left to become activated in ways they were apparently incapable of doing outside the context of the organized institutional movement of the teachers. Many leftists are rightfully skeptical of the radical potential of the existing institutions, but then throw the baby out with the bathwater when they use this as an reason to refuse to actively engage in shaping the activity of these institutions. While their ultimate potential is highly limited, their actions may open many unique opportunities for things to appear, even if sideways and behind the back of their movement. The Unions, non-profits, and the like will be the first to be left behind by the masses, but this leaving behind might only be possible after these institutions themselves move. In this context CORE’s independence from the union leadership is a powerful positive example, and the last minute deal calling off the Portland strike is a powerful negative one.


At this point is should be clear what the true test is of Uetricht’s book: How will it relate to the broader sentiments, ideas and actions of thousands (maybe indirectly millions) and help develop the left as a pole within society. In the week leading up to the potential Portland teachers strike I saw my roommate, a young teacher relatively new to politics read Uetricht’s book with relish and become more engaged afterwards, the husband of a striking teacher mention CLASS Action (another Jacobin project Uetricht also contributed to) at a solidarity campaign meeting, and teachers, parents and students discuss how the dynamics playing out in Portland are part of a national attack on public education. All of these are small, but bode well for the daunting project of rebuilding a left in the U.S. that is mass, popular and actually capable of ending capitalism. This book is a small tool in that project, and hopefully folks can figure out how to use it.

The political economy of cynicism

19 Feb

Hypothesis 1:

The  cynicism, flippancy, snarkiness, and anxious arrogance of the American  intelligentsia is produced by obnoxious shards of academic humanities programs clashing with each other as the wrecking ball of austerity hits US universities.


As the bourgeoisie restructures education, there are fewer tenure track positions at universities, especially in the humanities. So the existing pool of graduate students must compete with each other to get those jobs. This turns graduate school into something like a training camp for an academic American Idol contest.  Postmodernists and Enlightenment Grand Masters go at it like characters in the Hunger Games.   The social mission of the graduate student is to destroy the competition, to come up with some new boutique intellectual product that can be sold.  Often this is a critique of someone else’s product, like an up-and-coming Pacific Northwest coffee shop with it’s sarcastic anti-Starbucks ads.

This competition does not drive up the quality of intellectual production; it incentivizes splitting hairs and trivializing language and analysis.  Niche markets proliferate to the point where everything becomes a niche, so nothing is.

To make it as the next Intellectual ™,  grad students and young professors have to hate on each other, get into all sorts of petty fake rivalries that drive up each others’ status, use their  privilege, critique their  privilege, critique other people’s  privilege, use this to gain privilege, critique themselves for doing that,  participate in social movements, wish they were participating in movements, critique movements for not confirming their theories, and so on.

Out of the thousands who do this, a few emerge as the next  Slavoj Zizek.  Most become overworked functionaries who entertain people with sarcastic jokes when they are drunk.

There are graduate student comrades who resist these immense social pressures and end up playing sincere roles in social movements or in the education of future undergrads.  They are less snarky because they learn to think and act with others.  But most of them will never be recognized by academia and will become adjunct community college professors if they’re lucky.

Given these pressures,  people should think twice before they encourage young intellectuals  to enter PHD programs in the hope of becoming professors.

One possible alternative:

Over time, those of us who like thinking and learning creatively will end up building communities where we can learn all the things people try to learn in PHD programs and more –  in a healthier, less competitive  environment.

Hypothesis 2: 

The snarkiness, cynicism, flippancy, and anxious arrogance of the American  intelligentsia is also a product of journalists competing for attention in a world overstimulated by an unprecedented level of media production.   Shock value becomes an asset if you want to be heard above the chatter of the Internet.  So does  that old modern sarcastic game of “whatever you can do, I can do meta”.   Like graduate students, journalists compete to find the hidden truth behind what other people say, to the point of reducing everything to cynical games of words and images.  Expose everyone’s hypocrisy except for your own – unless a market for self-deprecation emerges.



One possible alternative:

Over time, those of us who like searching for truths will end up building communities where we can share difficult stories fearlessly without fake objectivity or cynical self-consciousness.  We will realize we are all hypocrites in some way, which is why we need to communicate with each other, finding out what’s going on together.

Bill Gates’ Pipelines to Hell: Reflections on the 2012 Education Policy Throwdown

10 Feb

On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.   

Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.

“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”

Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education.  (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)

We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model.  To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.


Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction.  The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:

  • Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to tie teacher pay to standardized test results.  A member of the crowd (an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine) nailed them over the numerous studies that showed the volatility of test scores from year to year.  Teachers with stellar scores one year are painted as failures the next.  Gates Foundation experts sheepishly agreed.

  • Racist Origins of Standardized Testing  – Another participant stumped them completely by asking about the origin of standardized testing.  The Gates Foundation experts were not aware that the tools they promote were originally designed by the Eugenics movement to apply assembly line models to classrooms in attempt to prove the ‘genetic superiority’ of whites.   Standardized tests continue to do what they were designed to do — maintain a system of racially segregated education.

  • Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools.  As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth.  It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc.  Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.

The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system.   Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching.   Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).

Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students.  It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.

When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system.  They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.

The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.

People over Experts

At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science.  They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates.   They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.

We also learned that they are vulnerable.  When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.  

Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck

So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?

  • Small Schools Initiative:  The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”.  Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch.  (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)

  • Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project:  The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured.   They were wrong.  According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”.  (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).

Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy.   This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.  

In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program:  “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”

Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite.  He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another

Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation.  According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:

  • They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.

  • They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart

  • They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.

  • WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US.   (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)

The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.

However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities.  The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them.  (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).

Next Target, Higher Education

Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.

According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities.   Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation.  If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society.  The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).

Automation and Education in the Era of Robots

The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation.  As Gates, Jeff Bezos at, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots.  As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.

If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools.  Since charter schools make the  education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process.   Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers.  Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.   

The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom;  they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers.  This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least.  But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers.  Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to  replace them with robots.

Bill Gates Might Just  Blow Us All to Hell

Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.

However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.

You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).   

Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration.  So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.

The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity.   The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.

The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway.  They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win.  They can afford to take risks and lose a few.

 However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky.  Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris.  His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.   

Workfare and Prisonfare (The School-to-Work and School-To-Prison Pipelines)

30 Jan

ImageHere is a guest post by Carol Issac, one of the people we have been collaborating with to organize workshops and actions against the school to prison pipeline.  She prepared the following research for the workshop we did on Martin Luther King Day, but she didn’t get a chance to present it because we ran out of time (there were a bunch of great presenters, and over 60 people participated).  Her research documents some of the bleak futures that await exploited youth these days; the pipelines that confine their lives begin in the classroom with averse discipline, isolation rooms, and disproportionate suspensions.  After a process of sorting by race, class, and gender, many of these pipelines end in forms of incarceration or state-controlled / criminalized labor. 

Workfare and Prisonfare 

In these times, there are two major forces whereby the government and the current ruling class punishes the poor.  In general, one method goes after the men and the other after the women.  Mass incarceration is also called “prisonfare”, and the replacement for welfare is called “workfare”.  They are two sides of the same coin.  While men are the primary target of mass incarceration, women, as single mothers, are the primary target of the major change in aid to the poor, the 1996 law that struck down welfare and replaced it with a work program.

We are not a nation that values solidarity, but we did, for a long time, legislate what could be called semi-compassionate social services to aid “the poor and handicapped”.  Since then, gradually during the last century, poverty changed from simply a human condition to something regarded as a moral problem.   Much of society now sees poverty as a failing of the individual, a manifestation of an irresponsible lifestyle.

There is still, however, a “deserving poor” who are a small and special subcategory somewhat worthy of charity but even they are not spoken of by society at large as “our brothers and sisters”.  The corporate media does little to point out our common connection with each other, so it is not an everyday part of the public thinking to feel more than a distant responsibility and assume we have some agency or such to take care of the “others”.  Solidarity is not a societal value here.  When compassion is its nearest common replacement even too much of that is suspect.  Instead of being “soft” we have come to prefer a strong response.  A virile warning is common, and too much charity is a weakness.  The “sting of necessity” is valued as a way to push the lazy to “get a job”.

Social service programs have been steadily reduced, especially since the ’70’s backlash, and those surviving are either inadequate or they are administered through a practice called “churning”, a term for the bureaucratic practice used by agency staffs that indicate the many little practices, tricks and harassments used to prevent a client from obtaining their rightful aid.

Where once we had a welfare program, in 1996 under Clinton that changed into a “workfare” program.  The title of the act applied was an insult in its very wording:  “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”.   Its purpose was to wipe people off the welfare role, and into unskilled work under demeaning conditions.  Since it mainly took care of women, as single mothers, this program micro-manages poor women.  By the time this law went into effect, already every other poor household in America was not receiving the benefits for which it was eligible.  This was designed to punish the poor and make them accept their abject poverty as intransigent, i.e. the way things are.

To get even less income than they did previously, women now had to work instead at jobs chosen by the government that are too precarious and ill paid to offer security.  The programs vary per state, but, in general, they are for the lowest wages, do not provide child care assistance, or do so for less time than actually needed sometimes at distances that create great hardship.  The result is that this kind of employment is both risky and prohibitively costly for young mothers.  The unlivable income makes parents supplement with what they can get from their already fragile larger family networks and from the current precarious standby, illegal street commerce, all of which keeps pushing them deeper into poverty, the shadows, and powerlessness.  Some, in time, opt out and do things like give their children to family or friends who might be able take care of them while they go homeless alone.

Workfare policy does not aim to reduce poverty but to punish it. It carries an implied warning:  Even if you are working more and earning less, there is a fate worse, a status lower, than hard and unrewarding work:  homelessness.

In Washington, homelessness is not legally a reason to remove children from a parent; however, there was a precedent setting case in May 2013 wherein the prosecution, which was the state of Washington, got around its own law.  It  used homelessness, plus other less than stand-alone factors, to concoct a preponderance of circumstances that together were judged sufficient reason to remove a child from the custody of a parent permanently.  They created what can be pointed to now as a case that will bolster similar methods of decision making for cases in the future as though it were a piece of legislation decided by our Olympia lawmakers.

The poor seeking aid are routinely treated like offenders under criminal justice supervision.  The supervision is increasingly performed by private contracted businesses that do everything from mental health diagnosis and management, the client’s schedule management, transportation of children to and from visitation facilities when a parent’s rights are limited by court and a child is put into foster care, training for jobs that don’t exist or are precarious, or even for parenting skills that in some manner the state deems are appropriate and others are not.  All the while this is happening, the staff of these state and contracted organizations are acting like minders and writing up observations of the clients actions, words and perceived attitudes for the use by government agencies such as the courts.  Vetting of these agencies and staff for their adequacy appears unchallenged.

This past spring in a King County Superior Court courtroom one of these minders testified that she observed a client visiting with her own almost three year old when the mom was saying to the child, “Oh,___, some day I am going to get you a house and a car. …”  The state prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, used this testimony to illustrate how the mother was filling the child with non-credible expectations thus adding to the case that she was an unworthy mother. This went unchallenged in the judge’s lengthy decision.  The case had no jury, and the records were sealed, a common occurrence in cases involving juveniles.  This instance illustrates the level to which the micro-management is normalized, invisibl-ized, and seriously affects the minute details of the life of the poor.

While the social services are cut and made into tools that demean, there has been legislation that creates benefits for the class with wealth or the middle class.

The class that benefits most from social security and government protected pensions is the class that gets the best jobs.  Home owners, in general, get a break on taxes if they have a mortgage.  There are many benefits that are really a sliding scale of favors for those with more, while those with less become the recipients of less and less.


“Punishing the Poor:  The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity”  by Loic Wacquant  2009  –  Professor Wacquant is at the University of California, Berkeley  and is a MacArthur Award Winner.

Observations of trials 2013