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 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 today’s resounding Tory victory will not be an analytical one. Instead I wish to make an impassioned, though still considered, call to action to everyone – and I don’t just mean those who consider themselves ‘of the Left’, but every single human being in this country who desires to live in a just society. The call is to keep the faith in humanity, to keep the faith with the poorest and most marginalised in our society, and to do this by redoubling our personal and collective commitment to win true democracy. Allow me to explain.
I have read some worrying articles1 and Facebook comments today declaring the British electorate to be stupid and like turkeys voting for Christmas. The first thing to say is that it’s more a case of the turkeys not voting at all. A third of UK citizens did not vote and these non-voters are much more likely to come from the most deprived sections of society.
That said, though I totally understand the deep frustration felt by so many today, 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 quite 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 Paolo Freire to argue for the intellectual potential of all people, to argue for us all to reach out to our most oppressed fellow citizens through a dialogue that starts with listening, really listening.
‘All men are intellectuals’,2 declared Gramsci. Gramsci was keen to highlight the false division in our society between intellectual and manual work, between the thinkers – the ‘intellectuals’ – and the doers. The division was false because, first, however seemingly menial, all work contains an intellectual component, and, second, 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’.
The fundamental problem for Gramsci, following Marx, was that in a class society the dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) ideology was that of the ruling class. This insight must, of course, today be supplemented by other critical perspectives, i.e. the dominant ideology isn’t just bourgeois, but white, patriarchal, heteronormative, able-bodied, etc. In short, the production of knowledge and ‘truth’ is power, and when we surrender our intellectuality to the self-proclaimed ‘neutral’ ‘experts’ in the universities, the think-tanks, the government departments, etc, we effectively surrender our power and liberty. Indeed, Paolo Freire thought that people without this intellectual power became rendered dehumanised ‘objects’. Thus a process of subsequent humanization was necessary through a process of what he called ‘conscientization’ (becoming politically conscious). This itself must take place through an ongoing ‘praxis’ – a dynamic interaction of action and reflection – that is founded on dialogue. People become full human beings when they are able to ‘read their own world and write their own history’.
What we are really talking about here, bottom line, is that if we really want the democratisation of our society we must have the democratisation of knowledge and its production. Alternatively put, we must all become intellectuals. What this means is that 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, but must instead recognise the serious limits of their knowledge and must reach out to those 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.’
And what is the nature of this dialogue that we must all enter into with each other in order to ‘name the world’? For Freire it had four components. It had 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 had 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 Paolo 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, as Ann Hope and Sally Timmel put it, ‘social’ knowledge) of ordinary people combines with the ‘critical’ (or ‘scientific’) knowledge of educators to produce ‘transformative knowledge’ that can change our 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 really believe that Freire and other critical educators like him can show us the path to winning democracy and justice for all. Long before this week’s election here in the UK, we knew that this was a genocidal and ecocidal system. What this election result makes absolutely clear is that, given the current depth of economic crisis and ecological collapse we face, the reformist path is a dead end. We need radical, revolutionary social transformation.
If you are reading this gripped by despair, frightened by the prospect of so much more human suffering, then please think about the ideas presented here. I really believe, now more than ever, that there is no innocent bystander; that we all now 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 are reformist rather than revolutionary. We need to come together to act and build our future. It’s already begun. However, before we act we need to create spaces and time for genuine dialogue. We need to talk…and we need to listen. So, please, have faith in each other. It will be richly rewarded and our democracy can be built upon nothing else.3
1Yes, I do realise this is a spoof! But, still, it’s funny because it’s a feasible position to take.
2Let’s benevolently assume that Gramsci meant all people rather than just specifically men!
3I feel obliged to confess here the contradictions within my own personal position. At present, after a serious disagreement, I am barely speaking to my own parents. They are good, kind people and I’m working through my emotions. I know I need to take my own advice here. I will, but it’s taking time.