Monday, August 10, 2009

Popular Education and Diverse Economies

What will it take for the ruling forces of our nations to admit that capitalism isn't working? Of course capitalism is almost never overtly talked about in the popular/mass media and certainly not in our governments. It is effectively veiled behind the supposedly neutral jargon of "the market" and "economics" both of which are used in place of "the capitalist market" and "capitalist economics". The legacy of the red-baiting 'fear of communism' tactics remains so strong that we cannot use what should merely be the name of one approach to economics - if we use the word "capitalism" in public discourse, we must go to great pains to project an air of neutrality that presumes that listeners will wonder if you're a socialist. Most people accept that we are in an "economic" crisis and not a crisis of "capitalist economics" (or, still more simply stated, a "crisis of capitalism"). Nor have the gargantuan relief efforts - cynically limited to the biggest institutions as well as cynically abused by those same institutions - shaken people's confidence in capitalism. After all, it's not capitalism that is failing, it's the economy - or so the mass of people would like to believe.

If we cannot name the problem, how can we possibly hope to address it, let alone solve it? I'm not suggesting that what we are facing can be understood by pithy phrases, even though there is much truth in the "crisis of capitalism" naming. Capitalism, however, IS merely one system of economics - though it is the dominant one; and it is so by virtue of centuries of exploitation, war, genocide, theft and callous disregard for our shared planet (not to mention the plethora of ways by which we have learned to oppress: racism, patriarchy, etc.). But we cleverly disappear from the public mind the notion that capitalism is an historic choice and we teach ourselves to believe that it is a naturally inevitable evolution of human relations. Even while it leaves the majority of the world's wealth in the hands of the few; even while the system requires massive infusions of military spending and the ever increasing prison complex. And even while the system crumbles leaving growing numbers of people stressed, impoverished, fearful and destitute.

I figure there are at least two REALLY BIG LIES that keep things going pretty much the way they are going. One is the too-benignly named "Myth of Progress" (with its corollary "development") and the second is the "Market". Both of these lies are part of a system of common sense that the majority of the population share. The power of these lies is precisely that they are treated as unassailable common sense. The history of human civilization is seen as the history of progress - sure there were the occasional set-backs, but overall, we have progressed from primitive hewers of wood and carvers of stone to electric, space-faring, cybernauts; there has been no obstacle that our science and technology has not been able to conquer. If the cost of our progress has been global warming, polluted waters, species extinction, well, it's just a matter of time before we invent something that will not only save us, but even accelerate our seemingly unending progress. And along with our faith in science we also have an enduring faith in the market where the solutions to many problems can be bought and sold. There are, of course, many other ideas and beliefs bound together into a formidable matrix. One that people feel may have flaws but that overall does the best job possible. And besides, bad guys do get caught (Kenneth Lay, Conrad Black, Martha Stewart, Bernard Madoff, Earl Jones).

For thirty years, i have been a part of various movements researching, crtitiquing and advocating for alternatives to capitalist economics, politics and culture. And yet i've only seen capitalism grow stronger. So i wonder if there's a problem with the whole notion of alternatives which, by naming them so, tend to centre, in this instance, capitalism as the norm. And alternatives always seem second best and weak compared to the seeming robustness of the capitalist norm. But i also recognize that we are all deeply implicated in capitalist economics and depend on it for most of the necessities of life. And as we make changes, different choices, we must ensure that we do not create new causes of deprivation, exclusion, suffering. Not that this means that incremental change is the one and only path. There is enough suffering (due to lack of resources for many as well as excess of resources for the few) right now to deserve radical change. But our fears, our faith in the "market" and "progress", our forgetfulness about our interconnection with each other and the world all serve to keep us in the company of the devil-we-know.

But the "Myth of Progress" is just a story - albeit a powerful one that is bolstered by the judeo-christian-islamic notion of the expulsion from and eventual to return Paradise). But there are other tales that could be told - cautionary tales such as that of poor, doomed Icarus; punished Tantalus; cursed Sisyphus; hopeful tales of clever fishermen, tricky girls, lazy rascals; adventurous tales of brave archers and fearless maidens. And we need to tell more stories - more diverse stories. David Noble, of York University, wrote an excellent book on this very notion: Beyond the Promised Land The Movement and the Myth (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2005).

The "Market" is a somewhat trickier matter to deal with given that capitalist economics have claimed it for itself. But the phenomenon of "markets" preceded capitalism by millenia. And i have only recently learned just how duped i have been by the common sense of market=capitalism=market. I've mentioned the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham previously - in particular their Postcapitalist Politics (which, incidentally, i reviewed for the journal Emotion, Space and Society - unfortunately, unless you have a subscription or access to a university subscription, it's hard to read - so e-mail me if you're interested). Their work has been eye-opening for me - especially in showing me the way that i had colluded with some of the more negative aspects of the common sense around economics. They rightfully challenge the notion that the market and capitalism are the same thing. First, and very importantly, they define capitalist economics fairly minimally as the exploitative appropriation of surplus labour from the direct producers (or commodities, say) by non-producers such as individual capitalists or boards of directors of capitalist corporations. (Footnote 11 of Postcapitalist Politics is a pretty good summary of this idea - albeit rather dense language for many of us; but then, i'm a theory-geek.)

So, once having defined capitalism so minimally, we can now see differences that might not have been previously apparent. For instance, a self-employed person who "exploits" their own surplus labour doesn't fit this minimal definition of capitalism. Nor do co-ops whose members are simultaneously producers and owners (i.e. exploiters of their own surplus labour). In fact, once minimalized in this way, capitalism is suddenly crowded by many other economic practices which need not be seen as "alternatives" to capitalism, but as different choices of which capitalism is merely another choice. Of course, capitalism remains, for the time being, the dominant choice, holding a good deal of the marbles. But this new theory of "diverse economies" holds a great promise which, i think, can be seen immediately in the futures it allows us to imagine. And, once imagined, perhaps we can start to make our way more effectively towards those futures. Or, if the journey metaphor seems to set change outside of our horizons, we can use this theory to look around and see where the seeds of those imagined futures are to be found already growing! Seeds which include self-employed people, co-ops (worker co-ops, producer-consumer co-ops, food co-ops, multi-stakeholder co-ops), non-profit corporations, barter relationships, gift exchange, and more. Another seed is how we can reclaim the notion of "market" which is NOT synonymous with capitalism. A more complete picture of the market includes seeing that goods and services make it into the market in diverse ways. Sure, capitalist production is responsible for a good deal of what we find in the market. But other economic relationships also supply things to the market: co-op-produced goods, non-profit services, gift exchange and, of course, even theft.

Which brings me to the Catalyst Centre worker co-op as one modest player in a diverse economic landscape. i don't know if a diverse economies approach to social and economic change will humble capitalism. But i do think that this economic theory offers is a new lens with which to think about production and exchange. What if there were ore co-ops producing goods and services. Add that to the number of non-profit corporations and self-employed people and then think, "what if...?" What if we at least started with co-ops and non-profits and credit unions maximizing their purchasing of goods and services from the co-op and non-profit sector? That would keep some money out of the capitalist economy and circulating in a different set of economic relationships. Nor do we need to de-link entirely from capitalist production and exchange. Diverse economics means that capitalism in one element of that diversity and, of course, for the foreseeable future, it is likely to remain that biggest bully on the block. But in time, could that bully be brought down to size? If we can strengthen the diverse economy, develop new economic ways of being, might we not be able to raise a generation of people who value these new ways of being enough to challenge capitalism's hegemony? I think it's worth trying and finding out.

My theory with the popular education worker co-op (which is still barely getting by, financially speaking) is that our very membership could embody the very diversity of diverse economy. And, insofar as popular education is about both social and personal change (i.e. ethical self-transformation), a diverse economy practiced within Catalyst as well as between Catalyst and the rest of the world, would allow members to walk the talk in a profoundly more holistic and powerful way. Members would, of course draw some income from work with and through Catalyst. Additionally, however, members would be involved in gift exchange; collaboration between things they might be doing through self-employment (e.g. craft activities) and Catalyst programs; non-profit/charitable work (through grants and donations); and more. Seeign each member as an active participant in diverse economies is, in part, simply affirming something that has ALWAYS been true - each of us has always participated in a diversity of economic relationships, from the family economy, to under-the-table work (and even greyer type economic activity), to underpaid work, to the capitalist economy, and more. But we can go beyond simply affirming this diverse participation to evaluating our capacity (using some asset-based thinking) and choosing to strengthen those pieces with which we think, together, we can make a better world.

The iceberg image above makes a persuasive case for the amount of non-capitalist activity in which each of us in involved. What happens when we connect it all?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Organizing Popular Education - or not

To organize or not to organize? Is that the question? Or perhaps the more truthful question is: To be organized or to organize?

Our world organizes us. History (written to favour certain interests over others - see Howard Zinn's work), class (see Marx), racism, gender and more all precede the (hopefully) happy accidents of our birth. We all begin life as unwitting participants in processes that provide differential opportunity to people. The majority of people, or so it seems to me, move through their life without critical awareness of the opportunities they have or do not have. But some of us, of course, wake up and, in doing so, choose a different path than what is offered by circumstance.

Popular education is a praxis of social change that creates a space conducive to people awaking their inherent capacity to be makers of history - subjects of history and not merely objects, in Freirian discourse; spect-actors, in the language of Theatre of the Oppressed, instead of spectators. Despite my implicit claim to define popular education it is something that is notoriously resistant to theoretical explication. For popular education is simultaneously a pedagogy, a political practice, a theory, a methodology, a philosophy, a history and more. To apply Raymond Williams' terminology, it is a "keyword" - which is to say that it is not reducible to easy definition but rather necessitates a situated rendering - a political etymology, if you will.

This very resistance, however, is part of its political efficacy. As long as popular education remains a moving target it will prove difficult to domesticate and regulate. Sure, it is taken up by many people who naively think it merely a fun "participatory" alternative to traditional (i.e. authoritarian, elite, exclusive, etc.) forms of learning. It is cherry-picked and liberalized with abandon. But it is also practiced as the radical social change praxis that is its promise. And i daresay that this represents the greater share of the work around the world. But the struggle is on to contain it, regulate it, bring it under the knowledge regimes which have so many interests waging struggles for survival. And i must confess my part in this drama for i have taught a graduate class in popular education for eight years. While most of academia ignores popular education, there is, nonetheless, a steady, if modest, growth in interest amongst scholars. (I have recently learned of some interesting work in the UK and am now munching my way through Popular Education: Engaging and the Academy - International Prespectives.) And, while i do think caution and mindfulness about co-optation are in order, i also think it unwise to be reactionary (which, i'm sad to say, is only one of my many flaws) about popular education being mainstreamed. After all, should such a thing happen, it could mean a victory for the politics of popular education. Of course, not without a good fight to ensure that it is the radical critique of power that is part of that victory.

I have been involved in efforts to organize popular education for a long time. In Montreal in the 80s i worked with a good friend to pull together a popular education working group (under the umbrella of CUSO Quebec) that was very successful for several years in mounting workshops and trainings. In the 9os i worked with ICAE to create the North American Alliance for Popular and Adult Education (NAAPAE, for short). NAAPAE was a fascinating, and ultimately failed, attempt to connect a diversity of adult education practices in Canada, the United States and Mexico. These practices included popular education, folk education, adult education, literacy and much more. This very diversity was part of the problem. There were numerous very successful and energetic meetings. And it is right to call these successes in and of themselves. The failure i refer to is regarding the project to create a sustainable and democratic network of educators and organizers. The history of this effort has yet to be told - the story is one that spans fifty years, many nations and one that involves hundreds of educators. Suffice to say for now that we used the structure of the International Council for Adult Education established in 1973 - the heyday of optimism for the United Nations as a global leader in international cooperation. ICAE was recognized as a UN category B organization (an officially credited NGO body). But as NAAPAE was trying to form, ICAE itself was in a state of massive reorganization. A variety of strategies to secure funding failed. NAAPAE became part of the history books, as they say.

Meanwhile, I was also part of the Doris Marshall Institute for Education and Action, a Toronto-based group of popular educators that formed in the mid-80s. It was a charitable non-profit though it functioned pertty much as a collective using informal, and mostly effective, consensus. This is another complex story yet to be told. At the risk of tantalizing, i cite this as another example of a failed attempt to create a sustainable form for organizing popular education. But that is not to sell short many wonderful successes in DMIs almost ten year life. Even today, people remember DMI and still seek it out not realizing that it closed shop in 1997.

NAAPAE and DMI are two examples of attempts in North America to institutionalize popular education. The first an international NGO umbrella group and second a charitable non-profit. When Matt and i started talking about creating a new popular education group in 1998, of numerous inspirations were two linked to these casualties of neoliberalism (for that's another important factor): DMI as an economic model relied almost exclusively on consultancy work which was a contributing factor to its demise; NAAPAE had failed to respond to a project idea Matt and i proposed that would have mapped and mobilized member resources - we called this the "Catalyst Project." When Matt and i encountered an opportunity to secure some funding for popular education work, we dusted off our project proposal and began to build an institution that would avoid fatal reliance on consultancy. And thus were born both a worker co-op and a charitable popular education organization.

I wish i could say with confidence that we found a model that worked. But times have been tough. We had three years of well-funded work and since then we've struggled to get by. Both organizations are stable, if impoverished. And our books are in order. Which is saying a lot. But as a model for organizing popular education, the jury is still out. But we remain stubbornly optimistic that a worker co-op is a workable model that also resolves a variety of contradictions structured into state sanctioned corporate structures.

What gives me reason for hope is the recent development of a new theory of economics: diverse economies. Developed by Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson (who write as J.K. Gibson-Graham) and others, it finds its origin in JKGG's book The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) and is further developed in their newest book A Postcapitalist Politics. You can read an excellent summary of their idea in this document (a 200K pdf and there are many more articles to read here). Just how diverse economies can open up new spaces for popular education work is something i will develop in another blog post.

Both DMI and NAAPAE exposed challenges in trying to connect people on the basis of a shared pedagogical approach. Though popular education was, indeed, a commonality, no one was doing popualr education for its own sake. People and organizations were using popular education for anti-racist sruggles, anti-poverty work, immigrant and labour rights and more. And it was these issues that tended to define groups most clearly. It left me worrying and wondering. I worried that in bringing people together around a method, popular education, that we were perhaps contributing to the professionalization of a sector that could have a depoliticizing effect on the field overall. And i wondered just how best to connect the common commitment to radical social change that is found in popular education approaches to the many issues to which it gets applied.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Pedagogy of Love

Popular education, for me, has always been about exercising the most loving and respectful disposition towards people and the world of which i am capable. Thus have i often returned to Paulo Freire's words from Pedagogy of the Oppressed about the necessary qualities and values of democratic dialogue: love, faith, hope, humility and critical thinking (Continuum, 1993, pp. 89-93). Love remains a strange (if not awkward) thing to speak of in education and social justice work unless one is aiming for poetic affect. But the love of which Freire speaks is not reducible to the common sense emotion/feeling (equally used, unfortunately, to speak of feelings towards cars, dish soap and new born babies). He is referring to a more complex state of being that Che Guevara also famously referred to when he wrote: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love."

I've just learned of the on-line journal Rizoma Freireano published by the Instituto Paulo Freire de EspaƱa in four lanuages: Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and English. Not all articles are in all languages. It appears that most everything is available in Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese while only a few are available in English. It's all well-worth checking out. And i am wow-ed by this article: Political grace and the struggle to decolonize community practice by Antonia Darder and Zeus Yiamouyiannis. It addresses issues of power and resistance between academic researchers and non-profits (amongst others) and communities resisting oppression:
Many of these communities are also subjected to the dehumanizing effects of serving as quasi-laboratories for the benefit of corporate experiments, university researchers, and professional organizers. And, although some of these efforts may have positive outcomes, more times than not, the gains are short lived, as professional community organizers take on single issue campaigns in ways that paradoxically disempower those most in need.
I have been and am most often one of these "professional organizers" or "university researcher" types. Of course, my conceit is that i think i'm exceptional. But conceit is all that that might be. All of my working life i have been seeking (and building) ways of being in relation with the oppressed in a just and loving manner. I have, over the past 30 years of this work, learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do. And my most recent experiment has been the creation and stubborn maintenance of a popular education worker co-op - The Catalyst Centre. Me and my co-founders have chosen this path as a means that we believe creates the possibility for creative and emancipatory relationships that are otherwise difficult or impossible within conventional corporate forms such as non-profits, charities, educational institutions and private consultancy. It is still to be seen if our experiment can claim more than critical success (we are ten years old, which is pretty amazing; but we are also impoverished and exhausted).

We have built Catalyst on strong popular education values and politics which is to say that we exist explicitly to resist injustice and to support struggles against oppression, for freedom, compassion, generosity and love (and more). But creating an economy for our work has proven difficult. Funders like our talk of democratic practice, but balk at the lack of specificity around deliverables. For, if we are truly committed to democratic practice (to which we also add working from a position of abundance and not scarcity), then we cannot know the context for change without first engaging it, connecting with the community and researching (with the community) precisely what needs to be addressed. Asking for "outcomes" (measurable or otherwise) is anathema to this approach to social change. But private funders get to do what they want with their wealth. And other sources of capital are timid, at best, and tend to insist on quick return (if not of profit, certainly of results). And thus we are forced to rely on contract work which invariably wants quick fixes to problems that rightfully deserve a great deal of time. The kind of radical social change that we know needs to happen requires time and a great deal of labour intensive work. And reliance on contracts (i.e. consultancy) means that we can only work for those who can afford us. And that's generally not the communities and organizations who could most benefit from our help.

Over the past couple of years i have been exploring connections between popular education and community development. There is a strong fit to be forged here. But it's still to be seen if it will lead to a sustainable economy. I worry that social justice and environmental work is trapped in a paradigm of the quick fix. Community development (and especially it's sibling, community organizing) seem equally fixated on the quick fix. And it's hard to deny the urgency of the circumstances we find ourselves in. But as Darder and Yiamouyiannis write (in relation to a project in which a "rights" based approach was pushed):
Given this discussion, it should not be surprising that a politics of expediency, prone to expert quick-fix and task driven solutions, functions as one of the cornerstones of liberal strategies to community “intervention” (the word itself connotes a “platooning” in from the outside). Rather than to seek organic opportunities for voice, participation, and social action among community members themselves, the premature leap into a well-defined “Rights” campaign leads to a “true-and-tried” solution. What can not be ignored here is that mainstream solutions anchored in a “rights” approach are often much more compelling to mainstream (often “white”) community organizers, since it allows them to feel far more secure, competent, and comfortable in leading the charge. This, despite their lack of lived knowledge about how generations of racism and poverty can disable community empowerment, through contradictions, conflicts, dependencies, and despair (Darder, 2008). With this in mind, both Freire and Fanon’s writings reinforce the need for establishing decolonizing dynamics that instill a sense of intimacy and openness or “authentic conversation,” in grappling with class, cultural, gendered and racialized differences, within the context of community struggles.
For several years i have been developing a notion of praxis that goes beyond traditional definitions (or, at least, makes explicit something that was always implicit) that explain praxis as the unity of theory and action or simply as action that changes the world. I've always liked the notion of praxis which, for me, has always been about mindful action that is instantly self-reflexive (i.e. self-conscious about the theory that supports the action) and willing to affirm the good and change the bad. That which i have been seeking to draw out is the aspect of changing the self. Most talk of praxis seems directed outwards from the actor to the world. But it's hardly a far stretch (whether versed in theory or not) to suggest that the change we seek to effect on the world also has an effect on us. We change and we are changed. And should we be making positive changes on the world, it seems only fair that we should, personally, experience positive change. This is, however, not what i've witnessed in all too many cases. Burnout, disenchantment, sacrificed health, ruined friendships, neglected family are only some of the many costs to our efforts to change the world. A theory of praxis that articulates the necessity and obligation for self-change is one that i believe can lead to more healthy, compassionate and effective action. Nor am i speaking of just any personal change - praxis is about changing ourselves for the better where "better" includes kinder, more compassionate, more connected, more joyful (even more sorrowful), more loving, more humble. This self-change is referred to as ethical self-transformation and it is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges that lie before us. For in the word "self" i am including the sum total of ALL our connections with the people and planet with whom we live. The "self" in a theory of praxis is not reducible to modern notions of the fragmented individual who carries around a bunch of rights and capacities. Rather, the praxical self is an expansive being whose boundaries are far more fluid than most of us are comfortable being conscious about. Changing this self IS changing the world. For this self, when the world hurts, we hurt. And when the world is joyful, we are joyful. Religious people can probably understand this by comparing my secular discourse to what they are used to talking about as the divine - that which connects us all.

Which brings me back to Darder's and Yiamouyiannis's article and their talk of love and grace. I have to think more about this notion of grace - which has a decidedly christian tone to it (or is that just my catholic roots a-showing?) and which means "divine favour" or "divine gift". I think they emphasize the latter though i'm not sure what notion of divinity they are drawing on. (For an amazing piece of thinking on "grace" i recommend the trilogy by Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials.) But, grace aside, their description for a decolonizing practice is a challenge that fits well with the definition of praxis i am proposing:
...our responsibility to a decolonizing practice must be connected to a consistent commitment to remain ever vigilant of self and the social and material conditions that challenge our privilege, entitlement, and certainties of efficacy. This is particularly so where communities have been subjected to long term abuses, predicated on historical legacies of genocide, slavery, and colonization—with their lasting impact on both the oppressed and the oppressor. Given its emancipatory purpose, revolutionary community practice requires the exercise of an integral process—one in which the mind, heart, body and spirit are welcome in the active service of liberation. This integral dynamic generates the conditions for political grace to touch our communal exchanges. In its absence, our community practice can easily, albeit unwittingly, degenerate into acts of dominance and debilitating empathy that ultimately thwart dialogue, empowerment, and social transformation.
I have read anticolonial scholarship for quite some time. And in recent years have integrated anticolonialism more explicitly in the popular education courses that i teach as well as use anticolonial frameworks for my own thinking and community work. While my activism was well-served by using the framing of anti-racism (and this is still very meaningful) i find anticolonialism to be more resistant to being de-historicized and turned into an instrumental wrench to fix bad behaviour. We need more powerful tools if we are going to save our world, our lives and what civilization we value.