Some Thoughts on Building Progressive Alliances Across Our Differences

written by: Michael W. Apple
This is a very difficult time in education in many nations. Neoliberal and conservative policies have had major effects on schools, on communities, on students, on administrators, on teachers, and on all school staff. As I point out in a number of recent books, under the influence of those with increasing power in education and in all too much of society what is public is supposedly bad and what is private is supposedly good. Budget cuts have been pushed forward; jobs have been cut; attacks on educators at all levels and on their autonomy and their organizations and unions gain more visibility; corporate models of competition, accountability, and measurement have been imposed; continual insecurity has become the norm. The loss of respect for the professionalism and collective rights of educators is striking, as is the immense disrespect for poor and working-class communities and for the knowledge and wisdom that “ordinary people” have. These are truly international tendencies, ones found in an entire range of countries (Apple 2006; 2010; 2013a; see also Ball 2012). And, very unfortunately, these regressive attitudes and policies are often supported by governments that are sometimes even historically affiliated with more progressive policies. 

Much of this is the result of a well-organized strategy of the Right. The Right has repeatedly demonstrated that the struggle over “common sense” is central to any hegemonic project. One of the things that the Right has fully understood is that increasingly everything counts. In many ways, conservative activists have taken an insight from the great Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci when he was discussing the tactics of modern politics which to him were almost warlike. While war metaphors are dangerous, in many ways for those of us who wish to defend both the ideal and the practice of a truly critically democratic education—one that is truly counter-hegemonic—it feels like we are indeed in a war. 

Gramsci distinguished between what he called a “war of position” rather than a “war of maneuver.” By that he meant that in current politics we are no longer facing something like World War I where opposing forces were in trenches facing each other. The leaders called charge—and whoever was left standing won. Rather, dominant groups are engaged in a war of position and have recognized that all of our institutions count—no matter how supposedly inconsequential they seemingly are.

Thus, what the Right is consciously trying to do is to create a different kind of “occupy movement.” Their aim is to have conservative activists and policies occupy as many parts of society as possible. Cultural struggles, with schools often at the center of these struggles, are crucial to their plans for radical changes in society. Thus, fundamental changes in whose knowledge is taught, about how teachers, communities, and students are treated, and so much more are prime elements in their campaign to exert leadership in all spheres of society.

For many people who are justifiably very worried about the ways in which neoliberalism is radically transforming our common sense, our paid and unpaid work, and the means and ends of education, a key part of their arguments is that class relations are the key to everything. Anyone who knows my work over the past four decades knows that I think that understanding class is absolutely crucial to our understanding and interruption of dominance in education and the entire society. But is class enough? In an entire series of recent books, I have argued that the intersections of class, gender, and race need to be focused on, especially since neoliberalism is closely connected to not only class dynamics in the economy and in education, but also deeply infused with gendered and racializing messages and relations as well (see, for example, Apple 2006; 2013a; 2013b; see also Apple, Au, and Gandin 2009). But, if we are to build crucial alliances to fight back against neoliberal ideologies and their policies in the economy and the schools, are even these intersections also enough? I don’t think so. I would prefer to be honest about this and about what it means for understanding the connections between education and the larger society, for the theories we use to make sense of these connections, and for the actions in which we then feel compelled to engage to interrupt these relations. I can only outline my thoughts here, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I refer throughout this essay to books where I have developed some of these ideas in much greater detail.

Let me give a concrete example of what the implications of these points may be. It involves a personal story that is more than a little important to my topic, since I want to use this story to make some critical personal, theoretical, and political points that lie at the heart of many of the arguments I make in my most recent book, Can Education Change Society? (Apple 2013a). As you will see, the story also connects me to a movement that has demanded that educational institutions join with other institutions to interrupt the dominant assumptions and forms of organizing daily life. It speaks to a major movement to which large portions of the critical educational community unfortunately may have paid less attention than they should. Here I am speaking of the disability rights movements that have provided both theories and activist strategies for decades (see, for example, Davis 2013; Fleischer and Zames 2011; Goodley 2010).

In order to understand my arguments, at the same time I shall need to combine this personal example with some substantive theoretical and political points about how we might better think about connecting the transformative aims of multiple progressive groups so that we support one another in our efforts to defend the gains that have been made in education and in so many other spheres of our society. My grandfather had a favorite saying in this regard. “When the left lines up in a firing squad, it lines up in a circle.” (Think about it.) For me and for so many others, this is a history we can no longer afford to recapitulate, especially at a time when neoliberal and neoconservative groups have been more than a little successful at having their agendas define the terrain for using schools for social and cultural transformations, transformations that have the effect of increasing not decreasing inequalities. 

The Problem with “Normality”

Now the story. I have arthritis, a condition that has made it increasingly difficult for me to engage in an entire array of activities. More than a decade ago, my arthritis got worse, so much so that I was no longer able to sit or stand for long periods of time. Writing became harder to do, since I was unable to work at the desk at which I had written for nearly three decades. As the pain worsened, I searched for alternatives. The university administration had slowly, but then more rapidly because of the growing pressure from disability rights protests, come into compliance with national, state, and local legislation specifying the rights of those with labeled “disabilities.” Public and many private institutions had to be more accessible and more responsive. The university was not exempt and in fact the struggles there become symbolic of battles over disability rights that were being fought within many institutions in the larger society. These struggles of course continue, as do struggles over their very meanings.

As I worked my way up the ladder of responsibility within the university administration, it was clear that even in a time of fiscal scarcity and audit cultures (Leys 2003; Apple 2006), because of victories by disability rights groups the university had funds available for equipment that would make my life—and many other people’s lives—easier. I was to be given a desk that could be raised or lowered and could also be set at different angles, all electronically. In addition, I was to be given a chair that could be altered in almost every conceivable way, to provide support that was changeable depending on the site and level of pain I was experiencing. A solution was at hand. I could go back to being “normal.”

I am telling this story not to generate sympathy. The real point is what happened next, something that speaks to both the politics of the Left and the complicated politics of progressive identities as they cope with the role of educational institutions in the processes of social transformation.

To get these pieces of equipment, I had to sign an official document. I had to declare publicly that I was “disabled.” To be honest, it took me many days to sign that piece of paper. There is an intense set of emotions attached to this. I didn’t see the world as a “disabled person.” I saw the label as something that would “diminish” me; it would make me somehow “less than” what I “really was.” An almost visceral binary between normal/abnormal worked through me powerfully (see Butler 1999; see also Youdell 2011). One need not be a close reader of Foucault to understand the micropolitics and identity construction at work here. Hard ideological and personal work was necessary for me not only to sign the form and to be listed on the state registry by an identity I did not recognize. It was also required even more so to pull me even further away from the reductionist and essentializing impulses within critical educational studies with which I was already struggling (see also Slee 2009). Indeed, as I argue in my most recent books, among the tasks of the critical scholar/activist in education is to continually and publicly recognize the importance of such hard ideological and personal work, to open oneself up to criticism, and to be even more open to learning from multiple critical traditions. One cannot adequately answer the question of whether education can change society in critically democratic directions unless one also looks at society from the position of multipleoppressed groups.

As some readers of this journal may know, over the years in my earlier work, even though I had been a strong defender of critical work on class relations and political economy, I had written extensively on the dangers of class essentialism and economic reductionism (see, e.g., Apple 2012; Apple 2004; Apple 1986). As I noted earlier in this short essay, I had argued for a greater emphasis on the relatively autonomous power of gender and racializing structures and dynamics and about the importance of focusing on the politics of daily life (Apple & Weis 1983; see also Bourdieu 1984). Although I was not a proponent of “post” approaches, I had been forced to come to grips with some of the early arguments advanced by postmodernisms and poststructuralisms and, following Nancy Fraser, by what we might today call the politics of recognition (cultural struggles over respect and identity) as well as the politics of redistribution (largely economic struggles over the production, control, distribution, and access to resources, mobility, and capital) (Fraser 1997). Yet, even with my earlier work on the politics of labeling (Apple 2004) and my recognition that the processes of labeling children as “special needs” are deeply racialized in all too many nations, the structures, dynamics, relations, and movements surrounding and forming issues of disability were less powerful in my consciousness. I say this with more than a little shame. But I suspect that I was not alone in this.

Many progressive scholars and activists often tend to treat all things that do not overtly engage with class and capitalism as the fundamental driving dynamic of society as less important. Thus, the answer to the question of whether education can change society is “yes” if and only if it overtlychallenges class and capitalism. Other challenges, hence, either become less significant or are valued only for their “ancillary” role of directly acting on capitalist relations and structures. As I mentioned, I have argued in many places that understanding class relations and economic dynamics and structures is fundamental to dealing with the ways in which our societies operate (see, e.g., Apple 1982; Apple 2012). One would have to be living in a world totally divorced from reality not to see the power of class relations and economic dynamics and structures in today’s crisis in particular. To ignore the fact that capitalism(s) have become truly global and are immensely powerful in so many people’s lives in immensely destructive ways is to not be seriously engaged with realities billions of people face (Davis 2006; see also Apple 2010).

But others have gone further into the land of reductive analysis, often assuming that everything of importance can be reduced to these dynamics and structures and engaging in formulaic responses that obliterate complexities, intersecting power relations, and oppressions, and in the process unfortunately push possible allies away. I want to claim, however, that even if this reductive approach is true (and I do not believe that this is either an adequate understanding of social movements and their relationship to social transformations or an adequate recognition of the power of movements over personal rights) (see Apple and Buras 2006), this position still prevents crucial alliances from being formed that are absolutely essential to progressive projects since it tends to misrecognize the fact that this society has complicated and multiple power relations that inform and work off one another. It is also characterized by contradictory structures and dynamics. For example, rather than misrecognizing the implications and power of the disability rights claims I’ve pointed to so far, looking at the ways in which we might work together on specific fronts and issues is much more important. In the case of the example I am going to use in a moment, this involves concerns for a “politics of the body” and the ways in which this society deals with “ability.” Connecting to these issues can work for mutual benefits.

This is one of the reasons I have argued that we need to look for what I have called “decentered unities.” These are spaces that are crucial for educational and larger social transformations that enable progressive movements to find common ground and where joint struggles can be engaged in that do not subsume each group under the leadership of only one understanding of how exploitation and domination operate in daily life (Apple 2013a; 2006). 

Working Together and Resisting the Capital’s Vision of the “Universal Worker”

Here is the example of one of the ways politics of redistribution and politics of recognition intersect so that alliances across differences might be built. My description is all too brief, but it can serve to clarify important points of convergence.

Disability rights movements provide powerful possibilities for the interruption of capitalist ideological forms and their attendant ways of organizing and controlling labor. And they do this by challenging some of the most fundamental assumptions that underpin capitalist economies and ways of life inside and outside of educational institutions. By strongly resisting the ways in which paid work and paid workers are treated, new relations are made possible.

For example, demands that the organization of paid work and the environment where it is carried out should be changed to respectfully respond to the “differences” of disabled people are extremely important. They create crucial spaces for resisting the idea of the “universal worker” who is only to be valued for her or his productivity at the lowest possible cost. The demand that the physical environment must be altered to account for and be responsive to a range of “abilities” has radical implications for envisioning and then putting into existence new environments in which personal rights are as crucial as profits. The fact that the state has intervened into this process also demonstrates that as a site of struggle, the state—in my and others’ cases part of the educational apparatus of the state—can be used for (partial) victories, even in the face of immense counterpressures (Apple et al. 2003). I also believe that these demands have the potential to open up a space—but only a partial one that needs to be expanded considerably—for what Lynch, Baker, and Lyons call “affective equality.” It speaks to an ethic in which the values of care and solidarity sit more easily side by side with issues of economic equality (see, for example, Lynch, Baker, and Lyons 2009).

The implications of this for education are profound. Create physical environments that go much further than we often do in responding to a range of “differences.” See students as not only defined by their future potential as paid (or unpaid) workers. Give teachers the critical understandings, skills, and especially resources to make this possible—in the same ways that in my case universities now have—because of both the force of law and the continual actions and mobilizations of disability rights groups. And most importantly, actively and continually search for issues to join together with disability rights movements to form a larger set of movements to counter the Right’s arrogant and radical attempts to take away the gains that have been won by movements for personal rights in all of our institutions, including schools. I am of course not saying anything more than many activists have been saying for years. But it is unfortunate that many politically progressive educators may not fully understand how and why multiple movements can join together to work tactically on issues of importance to all of them—and may not be as committed as they could be to building a larger cooperative set of movements that includes multiple sets of issues. As I mentioned earlier, one thing that we should have learned from the Right is that everything does indeed count.


I am not asking us to be romantic here. Nor do I assume at all that the only or even primary way of judging the value of anti-oppressive social movements such as those involving disabilities inside and outside of educational institutions is their overt contribution to challenging capitalist relations, although it certainly would be good if they also did that. Rather, I am arguing for the formation of what I noted earlier and that I have called for many times before—decentered unities (Apple 2013a; 2006; Apple et al. 2003) that challenge exploitation and domination. One of these points of convergence is in the joint struggle over the control of (both paid and unpaid) labor processes, over the physical environment in which such labor takes place, and over how such battles over control can be connected to multiple agendas. The case of disability rights provides a prime example of this.

I am arguing for what the Right has done so well—building alliances across differences (Apple 2006). This involves a politics that as often as possible looks for sets of projects that can interweave and support each other—on terms on which both will agree. These become key aspects of what Raymond Williams (1961) so eloquently named “the long revolution,” the cumulative effects over time of multiple popular movements that challenge dominance in all of our institutions. Progressive movements are again on the march in Spain. The more inclusive they are, the more gains that can be made.


Apple, M. W. (Ed.) (1982). Cultural and economic reproduction in education. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Apple, M. W. (1986). Teachers and texts: A political economy of class and gender relations in education. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum (3rd edition). New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2006). Educating the “right” way: Markets, standards, god, and inequality (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (Ed.) (2010). Global crises, social justice, and education. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2012). Education and power (Revised Routledge Classic edition). New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2013a). Can education change society? New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2013b). Knowledge, power, and education. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W., Aasen, P., et al. (2003). The state and the politics of knowledge. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Apple, M. W., Au, W., and Gandin, L. A. (Eds.) (2009). The Routledge international handbook of critical education. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. and Buras, K. L. (Eds.) (2006). The subaltern speak: Curriculum, power, and educational struggles. New York: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. and Weis, L. (Eds.) (1983). Ideology and practice in schooling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Ball, S. (2012). Global education inc.: New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Davis, L. (2013). The disability studies reader (4th edition). New York: Routledge.

Davis, M. (2007). Planet of slums. New York: Verso Press.

Fleischer, D. and Zames, F. (2011). The disability rights movement (2nd edition). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fraser, N. (1997). Justice interruptus. New York: Verso Press.

Goodley, D. (2010). Disability studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Leys, C. (2003). Market driven politics. New York: Verso.

Lynch, K., Baker, J., Lyons, M. (2009). Affective equality: Love, care, and injustice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Slee, R. (2009). The inclusion paradox: The cultural politics of difference. In M. W. Apple, W. Au, and L. A. Gandin (Eds.). The Routledge international handbook of critical education (pp. 177-89). New York: Routledge.

Youdell, D. (2011). School trouble. New York: Routledge.

Williams, R. (1961). The long revolution. London: Chatto and Windus.

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