Reading Freire: Chapter One

This is a follow-up to Reading Freire: Prefaces and Introduction. See all Reading Freire posts here.

When I was deep in my literature review of rural politics in the Philippines, a friend with ties to radical leftists in the Philippines mentioned a book, a sort of bible for people of his persuasion, called Philippine Society and Revolution by Amado Guerrero. It was an appealing read, as I have (sort of) a soft spot for the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Philippines. I had heard from many people in the Philippines, especially the poor, that Philippine Army was an ‘enemy of the people’ and that the NPA at least had the right intentions. I’m also well aware that the existing social order of the Philippines is held together partly by violence.

But like the first chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I couldn’t finish Philippine Society and Revolution. Both stand as historical or anthropological source material more than any sort of social science. As social science, it’s simply wrong. The models employed do not fit the real, empirical world I live in. They’re rife with intellectual shortcuts and expounding the most extreme cases as being the typical scenario. The primary shortcut is to find a single target struggle against, anthropomorphizing an Other that’s responsible for a wide range of problems. For Freire, it’s the unnamed Oppressor. For Guerrero, it’s the United States.

Let’s take Guerrero:

If the natural wealth of the Philippines were to be tapped and developed by the Filipino people themselves for their own benefit, it would be more than enough to sustain a population that is several times bigger than the present one. However, U.S. imperialism, domestic feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism prevent the Filipino people from making use of their natural resources to their own advantage. As of now, U.S. imperialism and all of its lackeys exploit these natural resources for their own selfish profit and according to their narrow schemes at the expense of the toiling masses.

There’s a direction of exploitation that, for me, doesn’t stand up. It reads that the United States is directing its “lackeys” to exploit Philippine natural resources in a way wherein ordinary Filipinos see no benefit. But the United States is mostly out of the Philippines and the exploitation continues. One would be very hard pressed to trace the political violence I linked to earlier back to the the United States. One doesn’t need a conspiracy to fall into the natural resources trap.

I had a Taiwanese student in Shenzhen, an executive in large company, who owned a mountain in the Philippines that he intended to mine. He had no idea which part of the country it was in, but his ‘dream’ was to do a mountaintop removal, then build a golf course. This would support a simpler theory: capital is attracted to, and needs, more capital. A wealthy and/or powerful person in the Philippines went out looking for capital to extract more capital from properties he controlled. He found it in a Taiwanese businessman. It could well have been an American, or an Indonesian, or another Filipino. But it also makes little sense to struggle against him, personally, as a means of alleviating poverty and inequality in the Philippines.

Let me return again to Friere. His dichotomy throughout the first chapter is between an unnamed Oppressor and an unnamed Oppressed. For the Oppressors, Freire writes, “‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are ‘things.'” He goes on, arguing that this dehumanization is inherently sadistic. “Sadistic love is a perverted love—a love of death, not of life. One of the characteristics of the oppressor consciousness and its necrophilic view of the world is thus sadism.”

Powerful words. But who are these people? Perhaps a fairer question is who are these people today? Maybe these words and arguments made sense in the the freshly post-colonial world Freire lived in. Perhaps it resonated when national liberation struggles were still going on against foreign occupiers, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me now.

We live in a time of hugely expanded negative liberties around the world, and differentiated types of freedom isn’t something Freire deals with in his chapter on oppression (oppression being the prevention of freedom). Arguments about oppression are inherently going to have less traction when the discourse of the day is about ‘opening up’ markets and expanding the ‘purchasing power’ of the lower and middle classes in the South.

The principal political tension today seems to be inequality, which at its worse is a tension between the exploited and the exploiters. Which brings us back to Guerrero with the ready-made answer of, “look to the rich and powerful.” This is what I think Freire is implicitly saying too. But in today’s world, almost all of us are both victims of and beneficiaries of exploitation. Exploited factory workers work hard to buy cheap products, often made in deplorable circumstances like their own, for themselves and their families. Bankers in Hong Kong breath the same air polluted by the factories they helped build across the border. The goal of the exploitative World Bank is to turn the exploited into beneficiaries of other people’s exploitation too.

I think what’s happening that there’s a sort of anthropomorphization of systemic properties and geists. Epistemologically, it seems to spring from the same place where Chinese leaders identify their problems with Tibetans: clearly someone is telling them to self-immolate and protest if they’re all doing it, so they blame the “Dalai Lama clique” for orchestrating it. Which is just as convincing an answer as Guerrero blaming Wall Street for poverty in the Philippines, which is an ideological cousin of the 99% / 1% dichotomy of Occupy Wall Street. We need to build caricatures around mirages to point our fingers at.

Which brings us back to Freire: how convincing is it that flawed chalk-and-talk education methods are really just a covert tool of oppression? Freire sees it that the Oppressors see the “oppressed as objects, as “things,” [that] have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them.” He then develops this idea into his famed “banking” concept of education:

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.

I’ll wind down here. I think the banking concept of education is a useful metaphor. My review of Chapter 2 is likely going to be a lot more positive. My issue with Freire up to now is the conspiratorial nature of his thesis laid out in Chapter 1 that tries to lay a clear dichotomy between oppressed and oppressor. I’m agreeing with his conclusions while mostly disagreeing with his premises. He’s arguing people are (purposely) being oppressed through bad education, that “banking” is an intentional tool of oppression.

But the theme of this post is that this model doesn’t stack up to reality well, or least not my reality. Almost all of China’s elite today went through this sort of education. I witnessed banking education at some of the best schools in Shenzhen. In fact, especially in China, ‘banking’ applies to the elite more than the poor. The students who cram the best do the best on the Gaokao. Those who do best on the Gaokao do the best in society*. Those who resist the banking model are the drop-outs. There are much more convincing rationales for why banking prevail, like a misplaced conception of meritocracy.

Let me close with a disclaimer that these are incomplete thoughts. There are contradictions in my argument that reads might find and point out in the comments section. The purpose of this blog is to flesh out ideas, and I welcome thoughtful challenges.

* I had an employer who once hired based on the university alma mater (and thus Gaokao score) of prospective employees. He did it in a way such that he wanted someone competent but who wouldn’t expect too higher of a salary, thus he would look for applicants who went to second tier provincial universities.

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