Tag Archives: popular education

Paulo Freire on Violence

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis is, I think, the third or fourth time I have read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I found it difficult the first time but so worthwhile. I find it much less difficult these days, after having plunged myself into the depths of theory where few can write worth a damn, but it is more rich and full of wisdom than most things I have read. This first post focuses on just a very tiny piece of it — capitalism’s relationships of violence.

I have been thinking a lot about the nature of violence, the various ways it is inflicted on personal and structural levels, and the various ways it must be resisted. I have just finish Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which I will also be blogging slowly. I rather like starting things here, though, because like Freire I think it is worth grounding theory in the broader idea that the point of it all is for every human being to have the space and ability to realise themselves and the fullness of their humanity. He writes:

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.

The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons … is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. (44)

I love both insights — that this is a fact, but one that we can change. Given the relationship of oppression, it cannot be the oppressors who shift it as their way of life and thought is founded on oppression and the violence this requires, it must be shifted through a struggle by the oppressed to regain humanity:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. (44)

I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, but what he means is that it is the oppressed who can fully understand the nature of exploitation and violence and through struggle work to create a world without these relations. I don’t mind that everyone will benefit from such a thing.

To return to violence, he establishes clearly the direction in which it flows:

Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human. With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something objective whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior of violence to establish their subjugation. (55)

Yet as you can see over and over again through history and into the present discourses around people of colour and the poor, there is a projection of violence onto the oppressed:

For the oppressors, however, it is always the oppressed (whom they obviously never call “the oppressed” but — depending on whether they are fellow countrymen or not –“those people” or “the blind and envious masses” or “savages” or “natives” or “subversives”) who are disaffected, who are “violent,” “barbaric,” “wicked,” or “ferocious” when they react to the violence of the oppressors. (56)

In my research I found this over and over again as well — and you can hear it up and down the US at the moment in reaction to #blacklivesmatter just as you heard in relation to the civil rights movement:

For the oppressors, exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival. And they make this concession only because the existence of the oppressed is necessary to their own existence. (57)

What they refuse to recognise is how their position is rooted in a violent historical process that continues to inflict violence:

Once a situation of violence and oppression has been established, it engenders an entire way of life and behavior for those caught up in it — oppressors and oppressed alike. Both are submerged in this situation, and both bear the marks of oppression. Analysis of existential situations of oppression reveals that their inception lay in an act of violence — initiated by those with power. This violence, as a process, is perpetuated from generation to generation of oppressors, who become its heirs and are shaped in its climate. This climate creates in the oppressor a strongly possessive consciousness — possessive of the world and of men and women. Apart from direct, concrete, material possession of the world and of people, the oppressor consciousness could not understand itself — could not even exist. Fromm said of this consciousness that without such possession, “it would lose contact with the world.” The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.

In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; hence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more — always more — even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the “haves.” (58)

Here Freire signposts how this is driven by capitalist desire for profit and control, the ways it is patriarchal and bound up in multiple oppressions — you can extrapolate how this desire for control and domination of nature have brought us to where we are today.

It also results in their own suffocation, along with a great blindness, rationalising ideologies, a blaming of the victim, fear — all things far too prevalent now as then:

The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort” with their “courage to take risks.” If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because are “ungrateful” and “envious,” the oppressed are regarded as enemies who must be watched.

It could not be otherwise. If the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom; hence the necessity for constant control. And the more the oppressors control the oppressed the more they change them into apparently inanimate “things.” This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to “in-animate” everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism. (59)

I want to think more about the connections between control, possession and the reduction of people to the in-animate, to things. But this relation of violence is a key one I think, to be explored further.




Movement Halfway Houses

22493I quite love the idea of Movement Halfway Houses, explored in Aldon D. Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. I thought I’d blog it separately from the stupidly long look at the main thrust of the book itself. I have read so much of Freire and Horton, worked in popular education for a long time and have thought a lot about what the hell we organizers do when there is no real rumbling of the masses and popular uprising in the wind. Apart from long for these days past when everything seemed possible.

It seems to me, we build these. Analytically, this is what Morris argues they are:

A movement halfway house is an established group or organization that is only partially integrated into the larger society because its participants are actively involved in efforts to being about a desired change in society. The American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and the Highlander Folk Schools are examples… They don’t have a mass base, instead they ‘develop a battery of social change resources such as skilled activists, tactical knowledge, media contacts, workshops, knowledge of past movements, and a vision of a future society.’ (139-140)

Because mass uprising may have a level of spontaneity, but it can take different forms both good and really fucking virulent. Because democracy and collective action are learned, they are skills rather than some kind human nature that just comes out when called. Because strategy and tactics shouldn’t be continually reinvented (though always innovated). Because inspiration from our elders is so important — and young organizers always become elders in their turn and we don’t have good ways to manage that at all.

Morris focuses on the Highlander Folk School and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Highlander was founded by Myles Horton in the Appalachian mountains. This is why he is a hero of mine, arguing ‘oppressed people know the answers to their own problems’ but ‘the answers to problems of the oppressed lie in the experiences and imagination of the group rather than individuals.’

To arrive at liberatory knowledge and praxis requires a group, a collective, it needs to work through dialogue. Morris argues it is based on the following assumptions:

  1. Education through experience was a potent social change force.
  2. The solutions to oppression were rooted in the experience and communities of the oppressed.
  3. People and their situations would inform Highlander’s educational programs.
  4. The task of changing society rested on the shoulders of the oppressed. (142-143)

They worked with unions through the Great Depression and demanded integration of all union workshops beginning in 1940. Horton did things like bring beauticians in for workshops from all over the South because saw that they were community leaders, and wanted them to work for integration. Highlander sponsored the amazing citizenship schools that were later passed on to the SCLC to grow:

Movement activists of various pursuasions stated repeatedly that the Citizenship Schools were one of the most effective organizing tools of the movement. The “less militant” aspects of the movement like the Citizenship Schools were a significant mobilizing factor throughout the movement, often serving as “quiet structures” behind what appeared to be spontaneous uprisings. (239)

Rosa Parks was a regular figure here, as was King and all the other figures we know and love from the movement. It was the one place in the South that was fully integrated, living this reality before many could even begin to imagine it. Student leaders met here to strategise and train for the sit-ins, even before they formed SNCC. Local authorities saw it as a threat, they faced multiple threats and violence. They were closed by court order. For a bit. But not for long. They were instrumental as a place for reflection, difficult discussion, collective learning and sharing. But in the words of Myles Horton:

Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are. We might have been pretty good, at least the enemies thought so. But not that good, you know. (157)

The movement might have looked very different, however, without the existence of Highlander.

The same can be said of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, another example of a movement halfway house. Morris argues it was instrumental to the civil rights movement in 5 ways:

  1. in the organization and development of CORE
  2. a vehicle through which the method & history of nonviolent protest was introduced to Southern Black communities and the emerging leadership of the civil rights movement.
  3. provided MIA ‘with “an intelligence service,” which gathered information from white opposition groups
  4. made available well-trained staff members and continued to pay their salaries,
  5. … provided the emerging movement with important literature and films. (157)

Morris emphasises the fact that nonviolence was not part of a long tradition. He quotes organizer Hosea Williams as saying

Nonviolence as a way of life was just as foreign to blacks as flying a space capsule would be to a roach. (158)

In a nutshell this shows the remarkable feat it was to convert the Southern black community to nonviolence, through continuous workshops and appeals to ‘nonviolent tradition rooted in the black church and in the life of Jesus’. (158)

Still, it was for many just a tactic to reach a specific goal (there’s a wonderful discussion of this in That Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed), but as a tactic it was widely embraced. After the Supreme Court decided Montgomery’s segregation of buses was unconstitutional, one of FOR’s nonviolence workshops held to prepare people for struggle to fully desegregate trained over 5,000 people.

5,000 people. God damn. I get organizer chills again.

They did research, collected intelligence, shared best practices both within the movement and learning from other struggles around the world. They also documented the movement — a thing organizers never have time to do. They published a comic book to reach all those folks who don’t like to read on the dynamics of the Montgomery bus boycott, titled it Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They made a film as well, called Walk to Freedom. Priceless footage to us now.

Just an aside as a researcher as well — there’s is another brillianr note on the role of research from the United Christian Movement, Inc (Louisiana). They knew they had a problem with infiltrators, hey created their own intelligence department, so they found out all about those they were up against. They would often announce plans to integrate libraries or movies on a certain day and then not show. Their aim? To ‘devastate’ stool pigeons. They also passed messages through codes in sermons and songs.

Anyway, I’ll quote Myles again saying ‘Movements are not started by educational institutions, I don’t care how good they are.’ But they are shaped by them, supported by them, and documented by them for future generations. All of these things make these key institutions in building a better future. Maybe the same can be said of writers and academics as well, when they do their job well. One can hope.

From Hieroglyphics to Isotype — Otto Neurath

From Hieroglyphics to Isotype -- Otto NeurathA visual autobiography…I loved this idea of Otto Neurath’s.

Watching an old black & white 1950s documentary on housing in London, it struck me greatly when they showed graphics like the one below on the screen, talked about something they called isotype in a way that made it seem like a new technology that was being mobilized to understand and change the world.

neurathWhat struck me most is that as organizers and popular educators in the oughts, we sought to create such graphics all the time (though never creating anything quite so professional I confess). Yet I’d never heard that word before.

I looked it up.

Isotype — International System of TYpographic Picture Education, initially known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik). Developed at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien between 1925 and 1934 — interrupted by the rise of fascism in Austria and Neurath’s and other collaborators’ move to the UK. Found this book. Found that a technology for social change is what Otto Neurath always meant isotype to be, though he thought of it and described it more in the terms of his own day’s idealism and with sometimes unfortunate phrasing.

Also, it might be confirmed that, if you start with visual material, problems which are usually dealt with at a higher level can be discussed within the curriculum at a lower level of education. One of the advantages of this is that people can remain in contact with certain problems throughout a much longer period of their lives. (6)

The point is that making information visual in this way allows us both to understand it better, and to open up meaningful discussion on key issues to forums beyond a handful of experts — and even they may have failed to fully grasp the facts. This in turn is key to any meaningful democracy.

Therefore, whenever the fate of individuals and communities is at stake, we need some comprehensive knowledge to help us make our own decisions. It is for this that I think visual aids are so important, especially when we wish to educate ourselves and others in citizenship. (7)

I kept thinking the phrasing is often not quite what I like, partly the period, partly language and culture and class gaps. Yet his commitment to graphics emerges from a desire to facilitate people looking at their own reality, and then thinking and making decisions about it for themselves. It is also clear that part of this is because the very process of transmitting expert knowledge is not a neutral one. Neurath’s words doesn’t quite nail the issues with it the way Freire does, but grapples with some of the same questions.

Teaching habits, whether we are acting as schoolmasters or museum directors, are often dangerous. Such habits might tempt persons in power to present what they themselves like… (7)

Yet he isn’t quite able to see a world where we all have bias, even when we draw pictures based on just the ‘facts’.

The few remarks I have made here may suffice to explain what Isotype sets out to provide for the masses of citizens who want to learn simple things in a human way and without bias, so that they are stimulated to further reading and museum visiting. (114)

And his goals — I may love these goals, but wonder why he has chosen them for mention above ending poverty, increasing direct democracy, fighting fascism, improving life.

Still, in the end it is a wonderfully visionary and utopian ideal behind all this effort, behind this creation of a visual language for making complexity more immediately graspable that does not rely on spoken language or literacy to show people things as they are.

But there is perhaps a chance that visual communication will play its part in the creation of a brotherhood of man, for it can help to bridge many gaps and reduce some of the sources of antagonism. I should like to take my share of the cooperative work, thinking of the possibilities that lie ahead, while tending to the tasks of today. (8)

I share many of these ideals of communication through visual means, believe in using my many years of work and study to help sift information, understand it, convert it into a graphic form (or work with someone more graphically skilled to do so) that best represents the facts as I have done my best to understand them. This is long and hard — just the way conveying an idea or proposal in one hundred words is so much harder than conveying it in 500. You have to have complete clarity on what you are trying to convey, on what is most important.

Yet it never occurred to me to try to create a universal visual language. I rather love this vision, and initially it made perfect sense. But then I thought about it, and realised as much through his visual autobiography as anything that probably much much of our taste and understanding of pictures emerges from our time and place and culture. How much the images you chose should reflect the people you are trying to reach. Neurath writes:

One of our museum slogans in Vienna was: ‘Words divide, pictures unite’. (126)

Interesting, and perhaps more true than false, but I am not entirely sure. Just imagine depictions of ‘home’, and how much that might differ across countries and cultures.

But to return to the subtitle…what is his visual autobiography? Too complex to capture here, but a wonderful collection of things…

Berghaus -- NeurathStickers he knew as shinies, stamps, maps, instruction sheets for building blocks, paper buildings and dolls with whole wardrobes. Berghaus’ Physikalischer Atlas.

Always he loves pictures that capture information, that transmit knowledge, the more knowledge in the simpler the line and more arresting the graphic the better.

He talks of beautiful etchings of birds and plants, colour-coded maps of military movements

Battle of Trafalgar Plate 2 By Alexander Keith Johnston (Atlas to Alison's History of Europe (1848).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Trafalgar Plate 2 By Alexander Keith Johnston (Atlas to Alison’s History of Europe (1848).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is not realistic depictions he favours, but what best transmits an idea, gives an overview without need of words.This is particularly interesting I think.

Again and again I felt that the orthodox perspective is somewhat anti-symbolic, putting the onlooker in a privileged position. A perspective drawing fixed from the point from which I had to look, whereas I wanted to be free to look from wherever I chose.  (49)

He loves the details abounding in Hogarth:

William Hogarth Industry and Idleness: plate 1. The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms
William Hogarth Industry and Idleness: plate 1. The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms

Egyptian wall paintings

Plate From Lepsius - Tomb of Sethos
Plate From Lepsius – Tomb of Sethos

He later writes:

I revive some of the feelings I had when looking at Egyptian wall-paintings, but without the sad undertone: pageantry for the dead. No–now it is pageantry for the living, for people of every kind throughout the world, whatever way of life they may accept, whatever creed they profess of reject, whatever their colour, whatever language they use. (126)

he shares these amazing visual mnemonics from 1808:

Traité complet de mnémonique, ou, Art d'aider et de fixer la mémoire en tous genres d'études et de sciences : orné d'un tableau d'application a l'histoire servant de frontispice, et enrichi de 25 gravures / par Mr. *** [i.e. J. Didier]. 1808.
J. Didier – Traite complet de mnemonique
At the end there is just a collection of images Neurath had collected after fleeing Austria. I particularly loved these:

Neurath Collection — Agustin Tschinkel, 1928-1930
Frank W. Seiwart -- Otto Neurath collection
Neurath Collection — Franz W. Seiwart ‘Helft de Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (1924) and Menschen im Gefangnis (1924) p 133

All of these things fed into the creation of isotype’s visual language, the attempt to create a new language all together through scientific study, observation and testing.

I think we were the first to evolve a theoretical framework of visualization, which started from a few observations but later on covered a wide field of experience, applying what we had learnt from the behaviour of pupils in schools and visitors to exhibitions, and of course everything one could learn from the literature concerned with visual problems. (103)

One of the key artists Otto Neurath worked with to develop pictograms and the language of Isotype was Gerd Arntz, a google search on his name shows something like this:

Gerd Arntz These figures — or figures like them are now so familiar. Their impact is clearly visible in the US as well, in graphics like these I found in Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago — their use pushed this book to one of my very favourite sociological studies as one of the most helpful to the people it studied:


Similar is a pamphlet emerging (somewhat surprisingly perhaps) from the Truman Administration on racism in 1946:

1946DiscriminationContributes to Poor Health

I think these show just how powerful numbers can be when translated into images, and how they can educate the school-educated and non-educated alike, while serving as a call to action. And this as well:

…at least I may be allowed to express my personal hope that the increasing speed of Isotype may perhaps be symptomatic of the spread of certain general trends towards a cosmopolitan attitude, a commonwealth of men connected in a human brotherhood and human orchestration. (126)

Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality

Tools for ConvivialityTools for Conviviality (1973) took a lot of work, it looked so inviting, so thin. But the text was dense and the words strangely denser. It repays effort though, and writing this post has helped immensely. Why I write them I suppose.

Illich argues that there have been two watersheds in modern times. The first is crisp, 1913. We reached the point in Western medicine where a patient had a better than 50-50 chance that trained doctors would provide better treatment than anyone else. Medicine and our expanding knowledge grew in leaps and bounds, and improvements resulted in corresponding improvements in health. The second watershed? More amorphous, that point at which we shifted to keeping people alive longer, without worrying about quality. The point at which everything became considered an issue for doctor’s prescriptions and environment, society and all else were pushed to the side as irrelevant. The point at which as treatment has become further and further professionalised, removed from the control of patients and their families and removed from ideas of community and environmental connectedness. The point at which it actually becomes increasingly less effective. multiple studies in health argue this exact point — that medical knowledge can solve only a portion of health issues, the others are interconnected with society, environment, employment, housing, inequality, isolation and etc. This rather than acknowledging all that can be gained through improving our environment and creating a just society, eradicating poverty, encouraging a sense of worth and connectedness to others.  The Marmot Review is only my favourite of these to date.

These watersheds exist for many professions. I think this is a key point: science and technology with their panoply of elite controlled knowledge and procedures have brought us so far, but cannot take us much further. They are, in fact, damaging as we approach crisis.  As tools they suppress other ideas and systems of knowledge and concentrate control over knowledge and its power in the hands of a few. Partly for this very reason, partly due to their internal logics, they can only provide a limited and very unsatisfactory set of answers to questions of how we can live full meaningful lives, and how we can save our planet. They have, in fact, managed to alienate human beings and bring us to the brink of destruction, while shutting down our ability to work towards or even imagine a better world.

The pooling of stores of information, the building up of a knowledge stock, the attempt to overwhelm present problems by the production of more science is the ultimate attempt to solve a crisis by escalation. (9)

Escalation is never good, except for business. Perhaps that’s why we see it in the wars and profiteering all across our world.

All of these things created that we are told make us happy, all of these processes and knowledges and machines are actually created to encourage us to consume and be forever unsatisfied. This is what needs to shift:

The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men. Neither a dictatorial proletariat nor a leisure mass can escape the dominion of constantly expanding industrial tools.

The crisis can be solved only if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them.

We need to be able to control these tools and processes, the means of production, so that they can used in harmony with our environment to give us a genuine sense of fulfillment.

I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. (10)

This is what he means by conviviality:

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. (11)

And this is how we achieve real socialism:

The transition to socialism cannot be effected without an inversion of our present institutions and the substitution of convivial for industrial tools. (12)

The focus on the tools, and the values of conviviality are what protects us:

The illusion is common that planners with socialist ideals might somehow create a socialist society in which industrial workers constitute a majority. The proponents of this idea overlook the fact that anticonvivial and manipulative tools can fit into a socialist society in only a very limited measure. (57)

I like that Illich actually also deals to some extent with how we get there — a world where we all consume less:

People with rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves. The price for a convivial society will be paid only as the result of a political process which reflects and promotes the society-wide inversion of present industrial consciousness. This political process will find its concrete expression not in some taboo, but in a series of temporary agreements on one or the other concrete limitation of means, constantly adjusted under the pressure of conflicting insights and interests.

In this volume I want to offer a methodology by which to recognize means which have turned into ends. My subject is tools and not intentions. (14)

He notes the monotony of our current system, here in the built environment of our cities:

The use of industrial tools stamps in an identical way the landscape of cities each having its own history and culture. Highways, hospital wards, classrooms, office buildings, apartments, and stores look everywhere the same. (15)

He is not prescriptive in the forms of governance a better future takes — only that it be convivial.

In a society in which power–both political and physical–is bounded and spread by political decision there is place not only for a new flowering of products and characters, but also for a variety in forms of governance. Certainly, new tools would provide new options. Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike. But the adoption of a convivial mode of production does not of itself mean that one specific form of government would be more fitting than another… (16-17)

What is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complementary, enabling tools which foster self-realization. (24)

The issue at hand, therefore, is what tools can be controlled in the public interest. Only secondarily does the question arise whether private control of a potentially useful tool is in the public interest. (26)

This is an important point about widespread ideas of progress, they continue so powerful forty years later, even after the massive rise in awareness of environmental issues:

It has become difficult for contemporary man to imagine development and modernization in terms of lower rather than higher energy use… The illusion that a high culture is one that uses the highest possible quantities of energy must be overcome. (26)

Another similar point on the need of capitalism to always expand:

The human equilibrium is open. It is capable of shifting within flexible by finite parameters. People can change, but only within bounds. In contrast, the present industrial system is dynamically unstable. It is organized for infinite expansion and the concurrent unlimited creation of new needs… (46)

I quite enjoyed how he ties this back to medieval times, the alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold changing into breathing a kind of life into dead matter to control labour:

The alchemist’s dream of making a homunculus in the test tube slowly took the shape of creating robots to work for man, and to educate men to work alongside them. The ideology of an industrial organization of tools and a capitalist organization of the economy preceded by many centuries what is usually called the Industrial Revolution. (30)

I also thought this point about speed was key, the differences in cost between high speed and regular trains, trains and buses, buses and bicycles, bicycles and walking.

Speed is one of the means by which an efficiency-oriented society is stratified.

Fostered addiction to speed is also a means of social control. (38)

It also converses once again with Le Corbusier — I read these almost together, but I don’t think that is the only reason they seemed to be in a war to the death. He writes:

The knowledge-capitalism of professional imperialism subjugates people more imperceptibly than and as effectively as international finance or weaponry. (43)

The final chapters look more deeply at the environmental crisis that looms (and how much worse has it become).

Political debate must now be focused on the various ways in which unlimited production threatens human life. (47)

He argues there are 6 ways in which we are threatened by industrial development:

  1. Overgrowth threatens the right to the fundamental physical structure of the environment…

  2. Industrialization threatens the right to convivial work.

  3. The overprogramming of man for the new environment deadens his creative imagination.

  4. New levels of productivity threaten the right to participatory politics.

  5. Enforced obsolescence threatens the right to tradition…

  6. Pervasive frustration by means of compulsory though engineered satsifaction… (47-48)

I so loved this, the basis for conviviality:

The only solution to the environmental crisis is the shared insight of people that they would be happier if they could work together and care for each other. (50)

This too, is a key insight, subject of much debate on the left. I think it highlights the need for a complete transformation to be free of racism, sexism and all isms.

It does not matter for what specific purpose minorities now organize if they seek an equal share in consumption, an equal place on the pyramid of production, or equal nominal power in the government of ungovernable tools. As long as a minority acts to increase its share within a growth-oriented society, the final result will be a keener sense of inferiority for most of its members.

Movements that seek control over existing institutions give them a new legitimacy, and also render their contradictions more acute. Changes in management are not revolutions.  (71-72)

This is pretty vital — and he doesn’t really do it here, or doesn’t do it enough, but ultimately this is where we have to get:

The alternative to managerial fascism is a political process by which people decide how much of any scarce resource is the most any member of society can claim; a process in which they agree to keep limits relatively stationary over a long time, and by which they set a premium on the constant search for new ways to have and ever larger percentage of the population join in doing ever more with ever less. (101)

Except to be clear — most of the world does ever more with ever less, so it is residents of Europe and America that are the problem, they will have to transform their consumption the most, and they’re still deeply class stratified. I wanted more postcolonial analysis, but I suppose that is for us to bring to the table. In the meantime,  some words of reason in how to think about creating this kind of majority:

There can be no such thing as a majority oppose to an issue that has not arisen. A majority agitating for limits to growth is as ludicrous as one demanding growth at all cost. Majorities are not created by shared ideologies. They develop out of enlightened self-interest. The most that even the best ideologies can do is interpret this interest. (102)

Ideologies might be a bit more complicated, I think about them a lot. As part of the lack of analysis around race and empire and larger global patterns of exploitation and consumption responsible for environmental disaster, I also really hated some of the rhetoric on population control. But I will end on a final quote I did like:

People will suddenly find obvious what is now evident to only a few: that the organization of the entire economy toward the “better” life has become the major enemy of the good life. (103)

Nabeel Hamdi’s Small Change

8739095A wonderful book on creating place — it resonated so much with all I have learned in years of working and planning with community, and it is so good to see so much of it thoughtfully consolidated and codified. Especially in such different contexts.  It calls to some extent on popular education figures I know like Freire and Illich, but to a much greater extent on figures from the development and planning world who I do not yet know and am looking forward to meet.

My principle critique is how this deals with neoliberalism — and I do not join the voices who critique this kind of approach as in itself neoliberal. I think this is how change has to happen, with people owning it, transforming themselves as they transform their lives and take power over their communities. That said, it is up to us I think to help people see how this connects to more fundamental overturnings of unjust power relations. He has this lovely quote from Calvino (I don’t much like the rest of the book):

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

We hope to create places that allow us to achieve our dreams. Instead, looking at the barren but massive new developments occurring in London (and elsewhere), it seems clear that the desires of capital are to erase the city of all that does not maximise profit — and thus erase the city itself. And us. We live our lives within these larger forces, and our lives are destroyed by them — so we cannot allow this small scale work to be coopted, rather ensure it is feeding the resistance against destruction. I won’t get started on his example of selling water.

Still, for early steps, for nuts and bolts, this is good (if this work is accompanied by a constant critical questioning of why this is our reality, how did it get this way, what is preventing us from changing it, how ultimately do we create lasting change):

development, like all human processes, needs designed structure with rules and routines that provide continuity and stability and that offer a shared context of meaning and a shared sense of purpose and justice. To these structures we ‘give up some of our liberty in order to protect the rest.’ The question facing practice is: how much structure will be needed before the structure itself prohibits personal freedom, gets in the way of progress… xvii – xviii

This is always the tension I think. I like the idea of ’emergence’ that runs through everything. Inspired by studies of slime molds which aren’t perhaps the most inspiring of creatures, I do love this idea of horizontality and networking and allowing things to emerge from the collectivity as they are needed (and have written about Emergence by Steven Johnson where much of this thinking comes from here — it contains many of the same issues I have with Hamdi and more…). At some point, of course, these horizontal emergings will run smack into the wall of hierarchical power which is rarely on the side of true ‘progress’. And they will have to fight. I believe they can, they are not necessarily subsumed into another level of support, bribed and coopted by such power that often made their organising necessary in the first place. But they can be. We are right to be cautious.

Still, back to what I liked and the thoughts driving the book:

intelligent practice builds on the collective wisdom of people and organizations on the ground — those who think locally and act locally — which is then rationalized in ways that make a difference globally. In the language of ’emergence’, ‘it’s better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements and let the more sophisticated behaviour trickle up.’ In this respect, good development practice facilitates emergence, it builds on what we’ve got and with it goes to scale. xviii

And I love thinking, have been obsessing over, the importance of dense networks in all aspects of life and health.

Practice, then, is about making the ordinary special and the special more widely accessible — expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility with vision and common sense. It is about building densely interconnected networks, crafting linkages between unlikely partners and organizations, and making plans without the usual preponderance of planning. It is about getting it right for now and at the same time being tactical and strategic about later. (xix)

I also find quite useful these precepts he gives us to remember and to guide practice (and to support those of us who work this way naturally in defending such practice in the face of those who much prefer structure, plans, controlled process and etc):

Ignorance is liberating

Start where you can: never say can’t
– ‘can’t because’ has to become ‘can if’, if we are to avoid paralysis given all the obstacles in the way (133)

Imagine first: reason later
we are too often confined by our own experience — ‘Practice, and in particular practitioners who are outsiders, can reveal these other worlds and, in so doing, can disturb people into reconstructing their situation, bringing them to a new awareness of and, therefore, power that increases their freed — which is what development is all about.(134)

Be reflective: waste time

Embrace serendipity: get muddled

Play games: serious games

Challenge consensus
Consensus gains the passivity of people not their active participation. It is in this sense exclusionary and encourages independence rather than interdependence. In encourages non-participation. (137)
— He quotes Kaplan — ‘creativity and life are the result of tension between opposites…[where] harmony is attained not through resolution bet through an attunement of opposite tensions… (138)

Look for multipliers
— Consensus planning looks for common denomibators. Instead, look for multipliers…ways of connecting people, organizations and events, of seeing strategic opportunity in pickle jars, bus stops and rubbish cans and then going to scale. It means acting practically…and thinking strategically… (139-140)

Work backwards: move forwards

Feel good

I particularly love that he challenges the consensus model. We are different, we do not always have to agree to work together or let important issues be subsumed or relegated to the future because we are a minority.

I also like this idea of outsider as catalyst for change, and how this change connects to wellbeing.

We have learnt that development is ongoing, a process in which occasionally and from outside, some form of intervention is useful to open up opportunities, to facilitate access to resources, to act as a catalyst for change. there is no beginning and no end, no single measure of progress, no primacy given to any one set of values, at least not on paper. Human wellbeing is as important to economic growth as growth is to wellbeing. We find that trust and mutual respect now feature as criteria with which to judge the appropriateness of projects. Interdependence, not dependence, is what we seek, between people, organizations and between nations. (15)

It is clear that process is more important here, a very interesting critique of planning and its modernist heroes, a support for those of us who oppose these kind of schemes:

The problem with these thinkers was not that they had a totalizing vision or subscribed to master narratives or indulged in master plannning. Their problem was not that they had conceptions of the city of the social process as a whole. Their problem was that they took the notion of thing and gave it power over the process. Their second flaw was that they did much the same thing with community. Much of ideology that came out of Geddes and Howard was precisely about the construction of community, in particular about the construction of communities that were fixed and had certain qualities with respect to class and gender relations. Once again the domination of things seemed to be the general flaw… (46, quoting David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference)

I also like a snippet of Sennet, who I have never really struggled with (and my short-lived embarcation on one of his books was a bit of a struggle), but he discusses three forces that challenge mutual respect: unequal ability, adult dependency and degrading forms of compassion. ‘Respect,’ says Sennet, ‘is fundamental to our experience of social relations and self.’ (50)

I feel like that is one of the things poor people always fight for and never get and so this is the most obvious thing in the world, but few others understand it, much less respect people who are not of their class (or skin colour or gender or sexuality or…).

There are some interesting developments of different forms of community:

community of interest — issues of common concern or common advantage

Community of culture — more homogenous, shared values and beliefs, often need to be disturbed ‘in the interest of reshaping power relations…in our search for equity in gender relations, in democratizing government, in our emphasis on participatory planning and our notion of what makes good governance’  (68)

Community of practice, work — sharing a joint purpose over time becomes a bond — Capra notes the more developed and sophisticated networks are, the more resilient and creative. Hamdi writes ‘The sense of a city being alive resides in its communities of practice, as does its intelligence. (69)

Communities of resistance (term from West) created in face of external threat, times of social unease, or dominance

Communities of place

1. all communities spatial, but in cities this is more through networks, porous and not confined

2. place assumes more importance than space, particularly for vulnerable like elderly or disabled — security and accessibility precedence over use value or identity

3. there exists a relationship between place and identity, where place is often appropriated to empower community, coded

4. spatial sense of community can change over times of day and over time more generally

And I like these problematisations of the constant use of the word community, often masking its complexity:

Whatever the type, community is mostly an ideal in development that we evangelize, something good and worthy…but community can be as much a part of the problem as a panacea. (70)

The treatment of local areas as communities of homogenous interests, said Lisa Peattie, way back in 1968 ‘can result in severe damage to the interests of the weakest inhabitants’. There is an emerging consensus that we bypass the notion of community altogether in favour of a more direct link between household and civil society. (72)

Which means our work is to create an architecture of possibilities — I quite love that idea, especially in thinking how public life and public space come together:

As we set about planning we are, by now, cautious of pre-emptive community-building. Instead, we seek to build an architecture of possibilities in the broadest sense of the term and give this shape, spatially and organizationally. Later, we may attach to it rules or codes of conduct which we will develop with others… (73)

It is again working through how we balance structure and freedom, such a difficult thing but so rewarding when done right. Nabeel Hamdi quotes Capra again here:

The designed structures are the formal structure of the organization (city)… the emergent structures are created by the organizations’ (city) informal networks and communities of practice… designed structures provide the rules and routines that are necessary for the effective functioning of the organization…Designed structures provide stability. Emergent structures, on the other hand, provide novelty, creativity and flexibility. They are adaptive, capable of changing and evolving…The issue is not one of discarding designed structures in favour of emergent ones. We need both. (97 quoting Capra  The Hidden Connections)

More lessons about taking time, building slowly and surely …

Instead, in practice, we need often to act spontaneously, to improvise and to build in small increments. First, spontaneity, as a quality of practice, is vital because most problems and opportunities appear and disappear in fairly random fashion and need to be dealt with or taken advantage of accordingly. (98)

…and creating a community of learning that transforms those involved:

The community-based action planning workshops and events we had adopted served to offer an early insight into the organizational capabilities of community, the responsiveness of planners and government authorities to ideas, the appropriateness of standards, the potential for partnership and the resistance those in charge to adapt. They explored the willingness of people and their local organizations to disturb their habits and routines. They are vehicles for learning and for identifying institutional capabilities and training needs, as much as for getting organized, getting going and solving problems. (100)

So we return to practice, and these final thoughts capture for me what practice should be for committed intellectuals and ‘experts’:

the art of making things possible, of expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility in ways which make a tangible difference for now and for later, making expert knowledge more widely accessible, turning it all into common sense and common sense into experts’ sense, coupling knowledge with power (Shovkry), creating opportunities for discovery (Chambers), finding creative ways of making one plus one add up to three or even more. (116)

Practicing is about opening doors, removing barriers to knowledge and learning, finding partners and new forms of partnership, building networks, negotiating priorities, opening lines of communication and searching for patterns. it means designing structures — both spatial and organizational — and facilitating the emergence of others, balancing dualities that at first seem to cancel each other out — between freedom and order, stability and creativity, practical and strategic work, the needs of large organization and those of small ones, top and bottom, public and private. (116)

The goal of becoming wise…I wish we taught more students this way, they are instead content to be clever. But then, so are most of their teachers.

This cycle of doing and learning, learning and doing, acting and reflecting involves a kind of ‘activist pedagogy’ which is systemic to becoming skilful and wise. The purpose them of teaching, given this setting, ‘is fundamentally about creating the pedagogical, social, and ethical conditions under which students agree to take charge of their own learning, individually and collectively, to create their own knowledge, much in the same way as later, in practice, we would expect people to take charge of their own development (127)

(Hamdi, Nabeel (2004) Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities. London: Earthscan.)


Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.


We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.


Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:


herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.