Bernard E. Harcourt | Concluding Thoughts on Critique 4/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Two aspects of Paulo Freire’s work remain essential today: first, the central idea of treating the other as subject rather than object: treating the other as a knowledgeable equal, with the dignity that accompanies the belief that they have valuable knowledge within them; and second, the need to link reflection and action: the conviction that knowledge is not just a cognitive process, but entails doing as well. I would like to hold on to those two ideas as we move forward in Critique 13/13.

As I indicated in my opening post, Freire understood well that, in his own words, “this admittedly tentative work is for radicals.”[i] I would argue that Freire’s work was, indeed, radical in its time, but that it may need to be radicalized today to confront the new ways in which power circulates in society. By radicalized, I do not mean to suggest that Freire’s work needs to be harsher, more Jacobin, or more vanguardist. No, I am not suggesting it needs to be more adamant along its Marxist dimensions. Rather, I mean to suggest that the way that Freire imagines power—on the binary model of oppressor and oppressed—needs to be updated to reflect more contemporary understandings about how power circulates in society and what can be done about it.

The fact is, Freire works on the basis of a binary notion of power. The referent is class struggle. And as a result, his language and discourse is somewhat dated. Freire is in dialogue with Lukács, Lenin, and Che Guevera in a way that, today, feels anachronistic—even if he uses them mostly as a counterpoint. To be sure, Freire does not adopt Lenin’s notion of the vanguard leading the masses. Freire proposes, instead, that leaders be on par with the people. Just as he proposes the unity of theory and praxis, he argues for the unity of leaders and the oppressed. On his view, leaders are supposed to view the people as equals, dialogue with them, treat them as full epistemic subjects, rather than objects for knowledge. Lenin’s question “What is to be done?” is a guiding star for Freire, even if he does not follow Lenin in his answer. Rather than reformulate the question, though, as I would, Freire answers it differently but firmly: Freire’s answer is that we must engage in equal and respectful dialogue with the people. Not to tell them what is to be done, but to facilitate their autonomous self-development. To allow them to recognize their answer within themselves.

But Freire’s response to Lenin is filtered through a binary power model. This is reflected in the fact that the main theoretical metaphor Freire deploys is the master-slave dialectic from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Freire draws on the master-slave dialectic to portray the evolution of the oppressed through different stages of self-consciousness (first, awareness of the oppression, then awareness of the desire to oppress, then awareness of the overcoming of oppression). Now, to be sure, by contrast to other critical thinkers who also drew inspiration from the master-slave dialectic—perhaps one of the most fertile dialectics of the mid-twentieth century—Freire is addressing the condition of oppressed people who, in many cases, are actually being held in slavery. Freire explicitly discusses the plight of peasants who sell themselves into serfdom in order to survive. He refers to newspaper accounts.[ii] There is an urgency and extreme nature to the discussion that is unparalleled. But the result is a highly binary view of power.

Freire’s conception of oppression, then, needs to be updated to reflect our more contemporary understandings of power relations. It is too steeped in class struggle and does not address the other ways in which power traverses social, familial, and political domains, including gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, as well as other dimensions. Rather than imagine society through the exclusive lens of the oppressed and the oppressor, it is essential today to acknowledge that forms of oppression are more multivalent and pervade multiple social positions. Using Freire’s language, peasants may well be oppressed, but a peasant woman may also be oppressed by her husband, and she may oppress her children. Along race and ethnicity, there may also be forms of oppression within the oppressed class. In other words, relations of oppression need to be articulated at a more fine-grained level.

The binary of class struggle, of the oppressed/oppressor, may be an effective device to rally the people and bring about a revolution; but real change is unlikely to happen unless we understand how forms of domination pervade other social relations—ethnic and racial, gender, sexual, familial, etc. If we are not attentive to that, any revolutionary outcome is likely to replicate structures of domination.

There are three elements to consider here: (1) the need to conceptualize power through the concept of “relations of power”; (2) the need to understand the problem of the reproduction of power, rather than simply its possession; and (3) the need to recognize the different forms of domination and power struggles that pervade social, ethnic, familial, and other relations.

The first relates back to the writings of Foucault in The Punitive Society (1972) and Discipline and Punish (1975), namely to his thesis that power is not something that can be possessed, nor something that one class deploys against another. It is instead the medium within which we engage in everyday social and political struggles. In that sense, we need to speak no longer simply about power, but rather about relations of power.

The second is the distinction, expressed by many thinkers especially during the May ’68 uprisings, between power and the reproduction of power. During the period, many argued that seizing power may not be sufficient, unless it is accompanied by a transformation of the way in which power is reproduced. In other words, getting rid of political leaders and replacing them with new leaders is likely only to reproduce oppressive relations of power if there is no attention paid to changing the institutions and practices (educational, familial, cultural, etc.) that reproduce power.

The third is tied to the multiplicity of different potential power struggles that proliferate in social, political, and other relations. This idea was at the heart of Foucault’s notion of relations of power and, today, is often discussed under the rubric of intersectionality. The idea here is that, even within a unity such as the oppressed, there are rampant power struggles that deserve as much attention as those between the oppressed and the oppressor. Many will, rightfully, want to resist this third point, believing that it will distract from the important struggle against the oppressors. But that is, in the end, shortsighted because the power struggles and conflicts within the oppressed, if unattended to, will ultimately undermine the unity of the oppressed.

Once we have a more nuanced conception of power, though, problems arise. Problems, first, regarding the relation or priority of forms of domination and power struggles. The idea of recognizing the multiplicity of dimensions of power—gender, ethnic, racial, class—is certainly not to create hierarchies or to privilege certain forms of domination over others. It is not to suggest that gender or race struggles are more or less important than class. But even so, it inevitably raises those tensions. Problems, second, regarding alliances and community-building: How do we organize resistance when the power struggles are fragmented and fractured? These two problems go together, and raise a critical challenge to praxis: When we distinguish between different forms of power struggles but place them all on equal footing, how then do we tackle all of the problems at once?

We know that the converse is inadequate. We know that we cannot tackle environmental problems without also addressing poverty, racial discrimination, and economic conditions. When we do, we fail. That is what gave birth to the Yellow Vest movement in France. The French government decided to raise the tax on petrol without thinking about the financial and economic consequences for the working poor. We know that segmentation backfires. But how do we affirmatively proceed in a now segmented reality. That, I think, is the central challenge that Freire’s work presents today: How do we harness and combine the multiplicity of struggles in such a way as to create real change?

There is no easy answer. In fact, the problem almost feels like a Catch-22. It is almost as if, when we, critical theorists, complexify the notion of power, we unwittingly open ourselves, or expose ourselves, to a “divide and conquer” strategy by our opponents. Now, we can certainly reject that formulation. Perhaps these were false alliances. If the coherence of class struggle depended on the exploitation of women, for instance, if it depended on all the unpaid and unrecognized reproductive labor of women (as we discussed with Judith Revel in Critique 3/13), then what sense would it make to privilege class struggle? The unidimensional, binary power model of class struggle is ultimately inadequate and hides more than it reveals. It undermines more wide-ranging emancipation. But more multivalent conceptions of power, which may be more accurate, may well undercut the cohesiveness and potential for concerted, concentrated, resolute resistance.

This is, ultimately, our challenge—the challenge of praxis in these critical times. As we begin to see some forms of oppression, others come to the fore, others become more pressing, others become visible. And this is precisely where we might seek guidance from the critical texts this year—Beauvoir, Foucault, Said, Lorde. Onwards, then, to Critique 5/13, Louis Althusser, and Reading Capital with Étienne Balibar


[i] Ibid. Freire added here, “I am certain that Christians and Marxists, though they may disagree with me in part or in whole, will continue reading to the end. But the reader who dogmatically assumes closed, ‘irrational’ positions will reject the dialogue I hope this book will open.” (21) I suspect that Freire was being too optimistic about “Christians.”

[ii] Ibid., p. 172 and n.47.