A Statement of Belief and Intent – What’s the point of Oxford Democracy-Builders?

A number of people have, quite naturally, asked me to tell them my objectives for starting the Oxford Democracy-Builders (ODB) group. My responses have been hesitant and unclear primarily because, as I emphasise, it’s for the group itself to define its own form and objectives. However, after some reflection, I am able to offer a summary of the political beliefs and objectives that led me to try to initiate a collective process of democratic learning and action here in my own town of Oxford. These beliefs and objectives are set out in this statement. It neither sets out my own ideas in stone nor does it definitively define what ODB is or will be. However, I hope it will help clarify people’s understanding and help inform our discussions on the nature and future of the group.

My motivations for initiating ODB

I called the first ODB meeting in May as a response to my own emotions after experiencing the local hustings for the General Election. I and around 150 others had crammed into a nearby church to hear a very low level of political debate that largely or completely ignored central political issues. Questions to competing candidates were preselected by email and the audience’s ability to participate was limited to strategic hand-clapping! I left feeling angry, disenchanted, and disempowered, so I decided to call a public meeting for the night before the Election entitled ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how can we start to build it?’ The goal was to give people an initial taste of a radical democratic alternative in which everyone had a chance to participate.

My deeper motivation for calling that meeting and for trying to build a process of participatory, democratic learning and action here in Oxford is founded on a personal journey of learning and practice – a ‘praxis’ – through the world of community learning. A few years ago, I co-founded a community education project called ‘PPE’ (People’s Political Economy) which trained people (mainly postgraduate students) to facilitate learning groups in community organisations. We the organisers learned a lot ourselves in the process, more from our ‘failures’ than our successes. You can read a report about our experiences and these lessons here.

Nothing’s really going on with PPE formally any more except for the one learning group that I run with My Life My Choice each week. That said, my experiences with PPE, my knowledge of experiences of other similar groups, and my reading of what’s called ‘critical pedagogy’1 have led me to develop my own theories of learning and personal and collective change. Here I set out these beliefs and how they inform my approach to running ODB so far.

The political and pedagogical beliefs inspiring and informing ODB

(1) If you want to democratise society start with yourself

I believe that perhaps the main cause of failure of left-wing pro-democratic organisations to achieve their goals, be they political parties, trade unions, social movements, or issue-based campaign groups, can be identified as a painful inconsistency between their declared goals and their internal structures and practices. In short, they demand (or claim to demand) democracy but behave and organise quite undemocratically. What history shows us is that the ends do not justify the means: When you seek and win local, regional, or state power in authoritarian ways you will not go on to implement democracy. Instead, the new power you enjoy as an organisation or as individuals will lead you to further concentrate your power and lead in increasingly authoritarian ways.

In contrast, I believe that our means are our ends. If we want to achieve real democracy in our society we have to start with ourselves, and when we come together to learn about and try to change the world this begins with learning about and changing ourselves. I’m not even merely saying that first we get our own house in order before trying to effect change beyond our group. That’s certainly true. But, what I’m suggesting goes far deeper. By trying to create a truly democratic space we are already changing the world. We are seeking to create a real utopia – a new, radically democratic way for people to come together to learn, to teach, to grow. Therefore, by trying to start a ‘democracy-building’ group in Oxford, I am trying to bring people together to take what I see as the necessary starting steps towards real democratisation – democratisation of ourselves as individuals and communities.

(2) To change ourselves is tough and requires support, acceptance, empathy, and dialogue

What does it mean, then, to ‘democratise ourselves’? As a work in progress myself, I’m not entirely sure. However, I can offer you here a long, causal chain that I think might capture the basic process…

Democratisation requires change; change requires critical thinking; critical thinking requires self-undermining; self-undermining requires bravery; bravery requires support and acceptance; support and acceptance require empathy; empathy requires listening; listening requires dialogue; dialogue defines democracy.

Allow me to explain…

Step One: To democratise ourselves means to change ourselves.

Step Two: Changing ourselves means opening ourselves up to new ideas, being willing to recognise and accept the limits of and flaws in our previous beliefs and behaviour, and to alter them accordingly. So change requires critical thinking.

Step Three: Albert Camus said ‘to begin to think is to begin to be undermined’. What I understand by this statement is that what we think isn’t separate from who we are or, more accurately, who we think we are. Our beliefs are inextricably bound up with our identities. Therefore, when we think critically about our beliefs, we think critically about our selves and we begin to undermine ourselves. Put another way, critical thinking renders unstable the foundations upon which our identities are constructed.

Step Four: This ‘self-undermining’ is an unavoidably disconcerting and disorienting experience. Therefore, changing ourselves through critical thinking requires bravery. Changing ourselves like this also takes bravery because we feel that we lose face when we admit our mistakes.

Step Five: Therefore, in order to create the optimal conditions for us all to find the bravery to undermine themselves, to admit mistakes, and to change, we have to collectively agree to end our judgment of each other and to offer each other support and acceptance instead.

Step Six: The best way to overcome the urge to judge that tyrannises us all is to develop our empathy of others.

Step Seven: The best way, in turn, to develop our powers of empathy is to listen attentively to our interlocutors.

Step Eight: Listening, of course, requires conversation or dialogue, so this whole process is founded on dialogue – the essence, the heart of democratic practice.

Although I set out a seemingly neat and simple causal chain here, it’s immediately obvious that the process is complex, very challenging, and time-consuming. This leads me to point number four, but first a word about the kind of critical thinking needed for democratisation…

(3) The critical thinking required for true democratisation necessitates engagement with critical political economy and social theory

I begin at this juncture of my life with a historical materialist understanding of the world. What I understand this to mean is that the history of humanity can, since the agricultural revolution, be centrally understood as the history of class relations – social relations shaped by systems of the production, distribution, and exchange of resources. Since the agricultural revolution, we have been able to generate large surpluses. Surpluses allow for towns and cities. Class divisions emerged, as did more formal politics. Politics, therefore, can be largely understood as the contestation over the allocation of these surpluses and the labour that produces them, and the use not just of physical power to control surpluses and labour, but of ideological and cultural power to legitimate their allocation.

We have seen successive forms of class societies of which capitalism is the latest and by far the most dynamic, deep-rooted, and (in terms of material ‘progress’) successful. Therefore, any process of truly radical2 societal democratisation fundamentally entails the overcoming of class society through the construction of a truly just social order in which all own, control, and run the economy and economic units of production (companies) not to make profits for the few, but to fulfil the personal and social needs and desires of all. This doesn’t just mean doing our work democratically; it means doing far less work too!

That said, we could easily have such a socialist society that remained deeply undemocratic. There are other systems of oppression and injustice and other political struggles that just as important as the class struggle. These are (primarily but not only) patriarchy and the struggle for gender equality; white supremacism and the struggle for racial equality; homophobia and other forms of sexual oppression and the struggle for sexual freedom; and disabilism and the struggle for equality for disabled people.

What this all means is that any genuine process of learning about and seeking to build democracy must go beyond the mainstream to engage with critical theories of political economy and society.

Right, back to the time-consuming nature of collective self-democratisation…

(4) Building democracy takes time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take action now

For an individual and a group to embark on the process I set out above requires a significant commitment of goodwill, energy, and time. I don’t see any way around this. You can work together effectively in order to move forward more swiftly, but it’s still a long process. There is so much to learn and, indeed, unlearn.

There is a clear tension here between the very understandable desire to act right now and the longer term process of democratisation I set out here. I understand that tension. I feel it! I want the world to change right now! But I also recognise the dangers of cutting corners. That said, in no way am I proposing a strict division between collective learning and political action in which a learning group takes no overt action until it is somehow ready to do so. This would contradict the concept of ‘praxis’ as I understand it. A praxis is a dynamic, continuous interaction between learning and action. Learning by doing is essential and it is necessary for individuals and the group as a whole to get involved in whatever political action they want to. The only thing to stress here is that it’s vital to reflect on that action in order to act more effectively next time round.

I also think that in order for us to be willing to commit our precious time and energy to this process we need to recognise the wider significance of what we are doing…

(5) Our small efforts are part of a big, global movement to democratise the world!

When ten people come together in a school canteen it may seem that what is said and done is of absolutely no wider political consequence. I would disagree. We are coming together to consciously try to make a better world. By doing so, though we can only see nine other people present, we are actually co-operating with millions of people worldwide trying to do the same. We can connect with, learn from, and teach them primarily via the internet and this is what we must consciously seek to do. Then we can really begin to recognise the political profundity of what we’re doing – daring to say a big ‘no!’ to the status quo, daring to dream again, to reimagine, to recreate – and that surely is what it really means to become political, to realise and fulfil our humanity!

This is a statement of the beliefs I hold that motivated me to start ODB. This statement also pretty much covers the objectives or, more accurately, the hopes I have for the group. I need now to briefly explain how these beliefs and objectives inform my ‘pedagogical practice’, i.e. how I’ve gone about trying to organise the sessions so far.

Putting political beliefs into pedagogical practice

In the first meeting, I simply tried to structure a session that would give everyone a chance to participate, to speak, to teach, to learn. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in coming to more meetings. I was glad when people said they did. I hoped that, even if they didn’t come back, they would at least get a taste of the energy, the power that there is when people come together to discuss politics and do politics in radically different, participatory ways. This was always only going to be a taster.

In the second and third meetings, I have referred to a specific method of community education called the ‘Psycho-Social Method’. This was developed in a series of four books called Training for Transformation by Anne Hope and Sally Timmel who themselves were inspired by Brazilian philosopher and teacher Paolo Freire. Here’s a link to a two-page summary of the Psycho-Social Method that I produced a couple of years ago. It is designed for people coming into a community e.g. village or region of a town or city. It begins with listening and trying to find out what are called the ‘generative themes’, that is the themes that people are talking about with strong emotions. The idea is that people will want to engage with a learning process that focuses on issues that affect them personally. The next step is for the facilitators to produce what is called a ‘code’. This could be a photo, picture, short film, short sketch, song, anything that accurately captures these generative themes and reflects them back to the group. The code can then be used as a way to begin an analysis of the problems the group faces, an exploration of their root causes, and the elaboration of an action plan to address them.

In reality, due to a combination of personal inexperience and perhaps contextual inappropriateness, I haven’t followed the Method diligently at all. What I have done is to respond to the group’s own interests and demands, which is itself in line with the Method’s own core principles, of course. Therefore, in the last meeting, I tried to facilitate the building of trust and fellowship within the group, and in the next meeting I will facilitate the group’s desire to learn more about austerity. Throughout I have tried to help us explore the issues we feel most strongly about in order to uncover some generative themes, but it takes time.

Finally, a word about the role of the facilitator.

Facilitator as teacher

I call myself a facilitator and not a teacher primarily to differentiate this from any formal educational situation that, sadly, is defined by what Paolo Freire called a ‘banking method’ of education. In the banking method, the teacher is the embodiment of all knowledge and power and the passive, pliant students allow themselves to be filled with this knowledge. Their task is to digest it and regurgitate it in tests and exams. This is an authoritarian pedagogy, of course. A radical democratic pedagogy necessitates a democratisation of the pedagogical relationship between teacher and students. It entails a recognition that all have something to learn and all have something to teach and that knowledge is co-produced, but it doesn’t go so far as to reject any merit of expertise. A democratic teacher is a teacher not because they just work in a school or university, but because they have dedicated a large amount of time to reading, writing, and thinking about a particular issue or subject. Their authority and democratic power comes from this knowledge and their desire to contribute their knowledge to social change, not from the power of the institution that employs them or gave them a degree.

Facilitator as leader

Ultimately, it has to be some one or a small group of people who decide to initiate a process like this. So, in the early stages, I guess I will be the leader of this group. However, just as all are teachers, all can be and should be leaders of a group at different times. I hope that, as people grow in self-confidence and mutual understanding, others will take on leadership roles. Indeed, I notice that this has already happened in small but significant ways already.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far then I thank you sincerely, wholeheartedly. This is not some masochistic initiation test! However, reading all this does probably show that you’re interested enough in the process I envisage to want to be a part of and to shape it.

Ultimately, this process will succeed or fail depending on people’s commitment to it. I know we are all very busy, but I also believe we all recognise the crucial importance of trying to develop new ways of doing and being like this because we all recognise how precarious our futures and the futures of our children and grandchildren are. Therefore, we do all bear equal responsibility for taking positive action today. This is my proposal for one such form of action.

Thanks again for reading

Joel

1Theories of radical democratic approaches to learning that seek to facilitate personal and collective change as a way of effecting societal transformation.

2By ‘radical’ here I refer to the word’s etymology. Radical refers to the roots of something, so when I say radical democracy I mean creating a democracy that addresses and overcomes the root causes of social injustice that impede democratisation.

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