I just published this on the Bristol IndyMedia newswire.
Two recent discussions on this newswire have got me to thinking. The first was in response to an (overpriced) lecture on “happiness” which readers tended to think was expensive middle-class wankery; the second was in response to a promotion of Kebele’s chess club which readers tended to think was an indication of Kebele’s hard core going soft.
Clearly there is a lot of concern when people are seen to be “taking their eye off the ball” and indulging themselves. In the face of a relentlessly oppressive social system we must not lose any opportunity to work for revolution…
Fair enough, but clearly there are times when we should take a step back from non-stop action and campaigning in order to consider some of the implications of what we are trying to do. So, in no particular order, here are some of my recent thoughts:
1. One of the things I like about Kebele is that when I’m there I don’t feel guilty if I’m not doing anything. There is time and space there to enjoy myself with friends, without feeling obliged to join in every damn campaign. I don’t always have the head space for campaigning and it's good to meet activists who are happy just to hang out with no purpose but good company. The cultivation of good relationships is as vital to the revolution as any demonstration.
Criticism of people just hanging out in Kebele reminds me of George Orwell's characterisation of some of his Socialist comrades: "Sometimes I look at a Socialist... and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody... [but rather] a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery... but because it is untidy." (p156, The Road to Wigan Pier)
If the world we're struggling for doesn't have time for a game of chess then I want no part of it. More power the chess club!
2. I recently read David Edwards’ “The Compassionate Revolution”. His preoccupation is with the generation of compassion. Edwards asserts that compassion is the phenomenon which drives a commitment to radical politics (when it's not a hypertrophied sense of order); more controversially though he suggests that compassion is a phenomenon which requires deliberate cultivation. People don’t just feel compassion out of the blue, instead it grows in them with nurturing. The absence of compassion often leaves people baffled and indifferent to the cries of the oppressed and to the arguments of those campaigners who would advocate for the oppressed.
I find this idea really interesting – and clearly it is an idea which activists should take some time to understand. As Bob Dylan said “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?” Well, perhaps the answer is more than two! We won’t convert people to our cause, we won’t persuade people to care about the poor and oppressed, if the seeds of compassion are not already inside them.
It is Edwards’ contention that Buddhism provides one key to unlocking this door of indifference. As a creed one of its defining characteristics is a commitment to the cultivation of compassion; the Buddhist canon contains a wealth of reflection, of discussion and of practical technique to enable this process to take place in the heart of the practitioner.
I suspect a fair number of people reading may instinctively recoil at the idea that religion can provide a source of insight into the revolutionary program. That recoil is a fine protective mechanism but don’t let it obscure the main issue! Clearly there is a question here which we need to answer, whether we turn to Buddhism or not. In seeking the source of compassion (as we must) it seems clear that we must examine concepts of community, spirituality, human relationships, beauty, art, happiness...
3. I’m half way though Paulo Freire’s “Cultural Action for Freedom” (borrowed from Kebele’s splendid library). Everything I’ve ever read by Freire has inspired me and this is no exception.
Freire is a Brazilian educator who worked for many years on the issue of adult literacy in the Bravilian favelas. Like Edwards, Freire is concerned with how the structure of a society is connected to the experience of the humans within it; in particular how the educational process affects that connection.
Freire’s “fundamental thesis is that there is no such thing as a neutral education. Education is either for domestication or for freedom.” His philosophy is that “man’s vocation [is] to be more – more, that is, that what he is at any given time or place.” (Both quotes are from Joao de Veiga Coutinho’s introduction; apologies for the patriarchal language.)
Freire denounces the existing social system (especially the educational system) as one of conditioning and domestication, designed to keep the masses in check. Anyone familiar with Chomsky’s propaganda model of the media will have no trouble in understanding exactly what he means. The counter to this domestication is an educational process which opens the participants’ eyes to the conditioning which they are experiencing. This process is a distinctively human one:
“… man, essentially a conditional being, is also essentially a being capable of knowing what conditions him… the key to “perception of perception” and hence to the recuperation of hidden or mystified reality, is problematization. Problematization… means both asking questions and calling into question and is therefore a challenging attitude.”(p9)
Clearly, in order for social change to take place, the humans within the society need to be awakened, to be challenged. Or, in Freire’s words, participants in change need to be “de-conditioned” before they can “be more”. This deconditioning is a process that happens in human gatherings that are open to a new way of being. Perhaps this new way is what we mean when we talk about community.
Just as Edwards connects compassion with revolution, so Freire connects education and community with revolution:
“the literacy process must relate speaking the word to transforming reality, and to man’s role in this transformation.” (p31)
4. Let’s problematize The Broadmead! Perhaps one practical way to engage with these notions is to consider the place of The Broadmead shopping centre in the average Bristolian’s experience. For me it looms large as a festering pustule draining the life out of our community. But this is clearly not how the average Saturday shopper sees it.
At the recent Kebele Info night on the oppression in Oaxaca I was struck by the call for communities to resist the invasion of power. The Broadmead is a clear manifestation of this invasion as corporate monoliths steal space from the heart of our community.
How can we challenge this theft? People are conditioned into thinking that mass consumption is the path to a happier life, how can we speak the word so that deconditioning can take place? How can we generate such compassion for the child labourer that people’s blind greed for cheap produce will be overpowered? I saw some graffiti on the side of the Broadmead a while ago, “Build community, not capitalism”; so then, let’s do it!