Paulo Freire. Credit: http://www.mensagenscomamor.com/frases-de-famosos/frases_de_paulo_freire.htm. All rights reserved.
I have come to realise that, whatever my political future holds, I will never be a good strategist. I am too emotional, too raw. For me, to cite the oft-used phrase coined by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, my 'optimism of the will' too easily dominates any 'pessimism of the intellect.' I can work on it, but that's probably something I have to accept.
Therefore, my response to the Conservative Party’s recent election victory in the UK is not an analytical one. Instead I wish to make an impassioned, though still considered, call to action to everyone. I don't just mean those who consider themselves 'of the Left', but every single human being in the UK and beyond who desires to live in a just society. This call is to keep the faith in humanity, to keep the faith with the poorest and most marginalised in society, and to do this by redoubling our personal and collective commitment to win true democracy. Let me explain.
I have read some worrying articles and Facebook comments declaring the British electorate to be stupid—like turkeys voting for Christmas. In the recent election it was more a case of the turkeys not voting at all. A third of UK citizens did not vote and, as this political map seems to show, these non-voters are much more likely to come from the most deprived sections of the country.
Although I understand the deep frustration felt by so many people, this reaction worries me. Generalisations about the ‘stupidity’ of the ‘lower orders’ are dehumanising and have no place in genuinely progressive politics. They are anti-democratic because they lead to a Leninist hierarchical, authoritarian perspective in which the unthinking masses must be led to their own liberation by an intellectual vanguard.
Instead, I want to use the work of Antonio Gramsci and the inspirational Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire to emphasize the intellectual potential of all people, and to argue for everyone to reach out to the most oppressed citizens through a dialogue that starts with listening—really listening.
“All men are intellectuals,” declared Gramsci (let’s assume he was referring to all human beings). Gramsci was keen to highlight the false division in society between intellectual and manual work, between the thinkers—the 'intellectuals'—and the doers. This division is false because, however seemingly menial, all work contains an intellectual component. And because “[e]ach man...outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a ‘philosopher,’ an artist, a man of taste” who “contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.”
Following Marx, the fundamental problem for Gramsci was that in a class society the dominant ideology is that of the ruling capitalist class. Today, this insight must be supplemented by other critical perspectives, since the dominant ideology isn't just bourgeois, but white, patriarchal, heteronormative, and able-bodied. In short, the production of knowledge and 'truth' is power, and when people surrender their intellectuality to self-proclaimed 'neutral' 'experts' in universities, think-tanks, and government departments, they effectively surrender their power and liberty.
Freire thought that people without this intellectual power became rendered as dehumanised ‘objects.’ Thus, a process of humanization is necessary through a process he called 'conscientization' (becoming politically conscious). This must take place through an ongoing 'praxis' that is founded on dialogue—a dynamic interaction between action and reflection. To paraphase Freire, people become full human beings when they are able to read their own world and write their own history.
The point is that the democratisation of knowledge is essential to the democratisation of society. Alternatively put, everyone must become an ‘intellectual.’ Those who already have intellectual power and seek to overcome hegemonic social structures must not seek to tell those less educated than them what to do or what to think. Instead they have to recognise the limits of their knowledge and reach out to those who are oppressed through a dialogue that begins by listening. In his masterpiece Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire was unequivocal:
“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization...The correct method for a revolutionary leadership to employ in the task of liberation is, therefore, not ‘libertarian propaganda.’ Nor can the leadership merely ‘implant’ in the oppressed a belief in freedom, thus thinking to win their trust. The correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientization.”
What is the nature of this dialogue? For Freire it has four components. It has to start with love: “Dialogue cannot exist...in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love.”
Second, it has to be founded on faith: “Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). Faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the ‘dialogical man’ believes in others even before he meets them face to face.”
Third, dialogue cannot exist without hope; and, fourth, “true dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking.”
This was how Freire saw democratisation: as a fundamentally educational process of collective dialogue founded on love, faith, hope, and critical thinking. Truly democratic social change can take place only when the 'empirical' or ‘social’ knowledge of ordinary people combines with the 'critical' or 'scientific' knowledge of educators to produce 'transformative knowledge' that can change the world. In short, the revolution has to be pedagogical. I think Freire was absolutely right. Indeed, he has been a central inspiration in my own life, worldview, and endeavours.
Coming back to the here and now, I believe that Freire and other critical educators can show us the path to winning democracy and justice for all. Long before the recent UK election, I knew that current systems were genocidal and ecocidal. What the election result makes clear is that—given the current depth of the economic crisis and ecological collapse facing society—the reformist path is a dead end. We need radical, revolutionary social transformation.
If you’re reading this gripped by despair, or frightened by the prospect of so much more human suffering, then please think about the ideas I’ve presented. I really believe, now more than ever, that there is no innocent bystander; that we all have a clear moral obligation to act. Spending a bit more on your bananas or coffee won't do it; giving money to charities won't do it; even volunteering in shelters or food banks won't do it.
All these are admirable actions, but they are reformist rather than revolutionary. Instead, we need to come together to build the future. The proliferation of grassroots organisations and networks that are developing new, experimental non-commodified ways of producing, consuming, distributing, and exchanging the things we need to thrive help me to believe that the (r)evolution has already begun. However, for these developments to succeed, they must be founded on, and regularly reinvigorated by, real dialogue.
Luckily, the Freireian approach is already well established, and has a long, proud, global history. In the UK, for example, the Edinburgh-based Adult Learning Project has been going since 1979. We can learn so much from such projects. Creating time and space for dialogue is difficult but possible —I ran a public event on the night before the election in my local community centre called ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how can we start to build it?’ Over forty people from a wide range of backgrounds participated in really lively and constructive conversation, and called for a second meeting.
A Freireian approach doesn’t just mean taking a critical perspective on the external world; it also means embarking on an internal analysis of ourselves as individuals and in collectives. I know that’s tough—at the moment, after a serious disagreement, I am barely speaking to my own parents let alone the rest of humankind. But I’m working on it. I know I need to take my own advice. The revolution doesn’t begin ‘out there.’ It begins inside each one of us, and proceeds through dialogue. We need to talk...and we need to listen.
So, please, have faith in each other. It will be richly rewarded. True democracy cannot be built on anything else.
An earlier version of this article was published on Agent of History.