ARE ALL KNOWLEDGES EQUAL? We live in an age in which the three unhappily related claims – ‘that’s just your opinion’, ‘everyone’s an individual’ and ‘well of course we’re the product of our environment’ – exist side-by-side, contradictions be damned. Every teacher will have come up against a version of these claims at some point or another – often they are spoken as if they were the last word, with a shrug, as if to say argument over. It is too easy to say ‘well, these positions are simply ideological’, although of course they are. They are also symptoms.
What produces the possibility and ubiquity of these assertions? If no one way of looking at the world is deemed to be better than any other, where all frameworks jostle for position in the marketplace of ideas, what is left for pedagogy to do? If capitalism is both the form and content of all contemporary knowledges, what role for the teacher other than as a kind of temporary shepherd through the fields of ‘transferable skills’, the valleys of debt and the clouds of anxiety, towards precarious employment opportunities in supposedly greener pastures?
Phil Collins’s marxism today (prologue) (2010) explores in a moving and occasionally melancholic way what happens to knowledges when they are no longer part of a larger political project. What, he asks, happened to all those teachers of Marxism-Leninism in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) after the fall of the Berlin Wall? The three women he interviews all respond with greater and lesser degrees of adaptability and distance, though all remember their time spent teaching with fondness, even when their students were less interested in the minutiae of exploitation and dialectics than they were in learning how to make bread or other practical skills. One former teacher, who remains unemployed, refuses to eat bananas or drink Coca-Cola – such was the ideological use these products were put to following reunification. Another, having devoted her PhD to examining the Chicago School, found the transition to capitalism easy, although she resents the flatness of a life dedicated to making money and consuming. And the third ends up running a dating agency, all the while regretting the punitive regime that saw her daughter become an Olympic gymnast for the GDR.
But while state communism may no longer exist in Europe, having been replaced by varying degrees of oligarchy, asset-stripping, privatisation, financialisation and austerity in both the core and periphery nations, its spectre haunts the possibility of thinking otherwise. As Étienne Balibar puts it in The Philosophy of Marx: ‘The events which marked the end of the great cycle during which Marxism functioned as an organizational doctrine (1890-1990), have added nothing new to the discussion itself, but have swept away the interests which opposed its being opened up’. Balibar argues that only now, in a world without actually existing socialism (China’s residual capitalist communism and North Korea’s repression notwithstanding), can we return to Marx once more: ‘Freed from an imposture and an illusion, we gain a theoretical universe’. The teachers of Phil Collins’s film thus occupy multiple worlds: committed to varying degrees to the economic and humanist project of the GDR, they nevertheless understand that this period is closed, even as their various knowledges of this former world live on.
With the contemporary landscape dominated by varying degrees of unemployment, poverty, rising inequality and the destruction of the welfare state, why should we not return to the structured kinds of knowledges that attempt to give an explanation for why things are thus and so? We are perhaps so accustomed to accepting the argument that grand narratives crumbled to dust around the same time as the wall did, that we can no longer think in grand systemic terms, despite the fact that omnipresent narratives of globalisation, networks, the planet and interconnectedness surround us, some ‘progressive’ (faster internet speeds!), others negative, or ripe for paranoia (the NSA, ecological disasters). We are nevertheless falsely constrained by these multiple stories, and all the while things get demonstrably better for a tiny minority and profoundly worse for the vast majority.
I want to examine each of the three claims that I identified at the outset as a way of thinking about the role pedagogy can play in unpicking these quotidian ‘truths’, and how they play into the perpetuation of false stories about the ways in which discourse and action function today. We may want to celebrate ‘debate’ for its own sake, and the interchangeability of postures and positions, but this empty form of equality sure as hell also suits those who simply get on with mining the world and its inhabitants for profit.
That’s Just Your Opinion
Implicit in this claim is the idea that opinions are always reducible to the single person who holds them, and as such all opinions are dismissible a priori by virtue of the fact that they operate as a kind of expressive pre-emptive auto-ad hominem. Opinions are like arseholes, the saying goes: everybody has one. It would similarly seem that it is impossible not to have them; and yet they are curiously weightless, opinion being the opposite of ‘proof’ or ‘argument’, although it is not at all clear, in the context in which this phrase is usually uttered, that proof or argument would make any difference. Opinions are presupposed to be resistant to learning, to being changed – ‘that’s just what I think’, as if it were a thought intolerable to alteration.
Opinions are like stones in the gullet, impossible to fully digest or evacuate. They signal an end to the learning process (and of course I don’t mean that this is something specific only to students; on the contrary). But what does this shrug of a sentence really indicate? In a sense, that this is all that is allowed of contemporary subjects – a worthless claim by a speaker who knows that nothing changes as a result of its utterance. Opinions are the opposite of performative statements – nothing changes, incorporeally or otherwise. The world continues to turn. A series of opinions is the opposite of a worldview. On the contrary, it is the admission that worldviews are dead. We could call this capitalist nihilism.
Everyone’s An Individual
Despite the extremely recent historical development of the concept of the individual, it is now imperative that everyone is one, at every moment. Despite the highly dependent and collective nature of humanity, the individual – homo economicus makes love to the legal subject and gives birth to itself – is the baseline unit of all understanding, however isolating it may be to live like this, without participation or collectivity. But of course we do not yet know what it is to be a full individual: if communism understood individuals as bearers of a now-defunct collective project, and capitalism reduces its subjects to productive consumers dominated by the commodity-form and frightened by the law which, despite being everywhere, is barely taught and rarely understood, what can we say about what is missing today? Why the insistence on asserting individuality, when in fact we live half-lives at best?
The individual is the token whose combination is not greater than the sum of its parts, but which, like a casino chip, stands in for something that quickly gets forgotten once the game begins. If everyone is an individual (‘I’m not!’), then individuality means very little other than as a minimal recognition of the legal and economic imperative to work, consume and, more often, accumulate debt. Rare moments of collectivity could form the basis of a model of a critical pedagogy, but this would have to be predicated on the dismantling of competitive measurements (exams, essays, etc.).
We’re the Product of our Environment
Despite the individualistic emphasis of the first two claims, this third is what really underpins them – no exit; we are fully determined by circumstance; everything we think, do feel and want is preordained and inescapable. We could describe this as (bad) science and (worse) sociology in the service of despair. It definitively puts a stop to further discussion. So we’re all individuals (incommensurably different), everyone has a (worthless) opinion, and this opinion comes from a region beyond our control. It’s a wonder anyone reads or speaks at all. Against this miserable fusion of existential and conceptual stagnation we have the idea held by the former teacher in Collins’s related ‘Marxist’ film, use! value! exchange! (2010), that education meant that one was no longer ‘just a blind victim of history’.
There are already those who refuse to be the victims of history, and pedagogy here is not the enemy from above, reasserting the need to jostle in the marketplace clutching transferable skills while drowning in debt and anxiety. There is a whole network of possibilities for free education (free as in not costing anything, not free as in ‘liberal’). There are those who sneak into lectures in the less security-riddled institutions, those who share skills and expertise in open universities and protest camps. There are autodidacts, driven not by market-imperatives but by the will to learn (pupils without will and autonomy, and teachers without the ability to convey the enthusiasm of independent learning, are liable to become mere pawns). There are moments when ideas become flesh and the world jolts into a curious kind of technicolour clarity. Without structures of explanation there can be no material battles over content, only a sense of being carried along by the stream towards educational and existential dead-ends.
As teachers and pupils, and both at the same time, we should ask ourselves: what would it mean to teach to a different horizon? To refuse to accept the passive statements of capitalist ideology that masquerade as freely chosen thoughts? To teach as if there was a different world, or at least a more accurate way of depicting this one? We need to get behind the conditions that create these postures of despair – materially (abolish debt), temporally (abolish work) and existentially (abolish capitalist ‘logic’). To teach from out of the future whose blueprint already exists in the traces left behind by a materialist pedagogy that remembers the past, stares the present in the face and understands that the future belongs not to the few, but to the many.
 Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1995 [orig. 1993]), p. 2.
 Ibid, p. 2