Sunday, February 2, 2014

Oppressed and Oppressors-Freire Style

Paulo Freire developed an interesting body of work on the "pedagogy of the oppressed," a way to view people in terms of their economic relation to a system with problems of inequalities.  Michael Johnson applied his knowledge of Freire to a recent work by Joseph Natoli.

Transforming Our Dark Affinities
"....(Joseph Natoli) seems to see this condemning disposition as having "no moral divide, but only a moral monism." I see it as a major moral dualism involving an "us" that is good and a "them" that is bad. The "clarity of a moral dualism" would lead to the "oppressed" turning against and condemning the "oppressors." Well, who among us is not moved in some way by that "wanting it all?" Natoli suggests that is the case of the 80 percent of us in the lower economic groupings. If there is anything needing condemning, it is the core values and beliefs that have the vast majority of us "wanting it all," not those of us caught in the cultural conundrum he so beautifully describes.

Getting Beyond Moral Dualisms

I believe, on the other hand, that to work our way out of our "unconscious common core," we need a new kind of dialectical space, not a moral dualism. I think Paulo Freire can point us toward it. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire sees that the core dynamic of oppression is dialectical. It is a dance between oppressed and oppressor that cannot happen without each playing out their role to the music of our "unconscious common core." He argues passionately that for oppressed people to liberate themselves from their oppression, they have to confront a radical choice: to become an oppressor or to start becoming more fully human:
The struggle for humanization … to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity … become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. [44]
So for Freire - at least as I read him - the only real alternative to oppression - that is, to the "unconscious common core," is what he calls "re-humanization" - love and compassion - along with a clear-eyed understanding of the external oppressive dynamics.
This re-humanization is a process of transforming the "unconscious common core" to create alternatives to the winner-loser mentality that is embedded in the cultural marrow of our being. Freire also warns:
… Almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors or "sub-oppressors." The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. [45]
Maybe, I am misconstruing what Natoli means by "moral dualism." He may be calling for what Freire is referring to here:
To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity. [47]
Certainly" Losers" must see how they are "being had" by their sharing a particular cultural mentality with "Winners." But they also must see how they are trapped into this mentality by their own agency, their choosing the "wanting it all" beliefs and values...."

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is an editor with Grassroots Economic Organizing and co-author of a book on regional co-operative economic development, forthcoming from Levellers Press. He is also a co-founder of SolidarityNYC and the Ganas Community.

Frank Thornton
This piece focuses too exclusively on the minds of Americans. Most of "the oppressed" do not live in this country and do not share the cartoon-like "moral dualism" that afflicts almost everyone here. Being victims of imperialism does not mean the world's masses, as tings now stand, speak with one voice or are free from dangerous illusions, but neither do they follow the thought-patterns described in this piece.
Another way to talk about American "moral dualism" is to focus on the vulgar dialectic of transcendance that infects American discourse. This thoroughly secularized "spiritual" paradigm for the most part recoils in horror from materialism and requires all human beings to posit political virtue as the product of a private spiritual or quasi-spiritual struggle for personal superiority.
Whether one's example is Mother Teresa, Thoreau, Gandhi, John Galt, Tom
Brokaw, or John Wayne, the obtuseness resulting from this pervading narrative is probably the main instrument in reducing the left in this country to powerlessness.
It prevents the 99% from arriving at a realistic appraisal of the class struggle that stands in the way of optimizing the lifespan of our species.
Moreover the debate about human intrinsic goodness versus that "sense of sin" that every young professor of literature invokes in his seductions of students, is irrelevant to the realities of political action and social life. Hawthorne and Melville vs. Emerson and Thoreau is a historical sideshow, not the main event.
Morality, whether "dualist" or otherwise, is first of all simply a rationalization for all the cruelties to which most individuals have historically submitted in the name of large-scale society, and secondarily a condition that humanity aspires tp create, rather than a precondition for society.


That the "masses" may have more than one voice is certain, since individuality is a biological condition. However, the psychological condition of people in response to shared socioeconomic circumstances has a limited range of options, say, in Guadalajara where NAFTA put a lot of Mexican people to work in low wage conditions, or in China. China perhaps shows a more hopeful side, since one writer in Nat Geo cites about 100,000 protests there per year. Yet, the basic dynamic pointed out by Marx holds- Employer-employee. Scholars talk of a "corporate-consumer culture" because most people have stopped being artisans making their own shoes, metalwork, and clothes as small businesspeople, and instead depend on corporations in the industrialized system. Read Marx-Engels Manifesto, Ivan Illich on Tools for Conviviality, and Richard Robbins Culture and the Problems of Capitalism for starters. As for "obtuseness," the model makes a difference. John Wayne represented the dominant, imperialistic system, while Gandhi challenged it with a profound and holistic authenticity. Produce and protest with a spiritual basis was most of his message. As for literary education, I agree in part. However, it is not principally the literature, it is the INTERPRETATION of those works. Heard of Marxist theory? I prefer more modern approaches, Gandhian, for example, or American economist David Ellerman or Sociologist Joyce Rothschild. Or Cornell West, for that matter. Thus Moby Dick has racial symbolism, but can be given modern interpretation in light of fishing co-operatives and Greenpeace's efforts to achieve ecologically-based moratoriums. Mark RegoM

Michael, nice to see your writing here! I know you from I think your reference to personal and cultural transformation to reconstitute our "common core" using Freire's ideas is interesting and important. An example that I've delved into a bit recently is the Mondragon industrial Co-op Corp. They are no government co-op offshoot. They were founded in Franco's Fascist Spain, a child of Hitler-Mussolini military assistance. Padre Arizmendiarrieta, a young Basque journalist who survived the war against Franco's forces, started a more public and grassroots polytechnical institute in his town. He taught the sociology of grassroots democracy, and five graduates became engineers who started the first Mondragon factory. Arizmendi's teaching lead them to want to create a co-operative firm, which they did with his help. They grew and diversified to become what they are today, a dynamic network of co-operatives which includes a co-op university. In Brazil, the MST have grown from the original inspiration of Joao Pedro Stedile who got his masters in Mexico and came back understanding the legalities of squatter occupation for farmland. They now utilize Freire's teachings as they have expanded all over Brazil, starting settlements and then co-operatives. They have started their own co-op association. MST even has a project to teach the settlements to build their own micro wind turbines.
In the US, I owe some credit to the Food Co-ops in New York City for contributing strongly to the transformation of my activist vision. Organic Valley farms shows that a similar vision occurred there recently, since they only began in the 1980s. Going from oppressed to socially responsible and liberated isn't necessarily easy, but like most things, it's about making the necessary effort that then makes it much easier to understand. William Greider, Marjorie kelly, and Nadeau and Thompson have written some decent books on the subject, for example.

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